Where Have All the Monkey Bars Gone? Safe Playgrounds Still Have Risks
Playgrounds just aren’t what they used to be.
Gone are the monkey bars, the metal merry-go-rounds, the swings (especially the ones made of tires), the seesaws and certainly the asphalt with the painted lines. Here in the US there are rubber mats, climbing walls (not too high), plastic slides. When we first moved to this northern New Jersey town in 2003, one school playground had an amazingly tall metal slide that you climbed up to via a narrow metal staircase (similar to this one in Berlin). It’s now gone, replaced with far shorter, and presumably safer, equipment, the result no doubt of “parental concerns, federal guidelines, new safety standards set by manufacturers and — the most frequently cited factor — fear of lawsuits,” as the New York Times says.
Two psychologists from Norway argue that “safety-first” playgrounds come with their own risks. Specifically, they are in danger of stunting children’s emotional development and leave them with more anxieties. According to Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway, and psychologist Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology, it is by gradually exposing themselves to more and more risks — to heights and falls, to the dilemma of getting halfway across the monkey bar and realizing you can’t make it — that children learn to deal with fears, just as habituation techniques are used to help adults conquer phobias. Says Sandseter:
After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.
“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”
The falls that are the most common playground injury “rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally,” notes the New York Times, which even refers to studies that have shown that a child who’s suffered playground falls before the age of 9 is “less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights” (though perhaps more likely to be a bit more of a daredevil, due to lack of fear?). David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London, also points out that, the more “boring” and “safe” playground equipment is, the more risks children take. Further, safety-first playgrounds are good for toddlers, but not for older children who could be “discouraged from taking healthy exercise on playgrounds because they have been designed with the safety of the very young in mind,” and may seek out other places that were never designed with anyone’s safety in mind.
I remember being very glad for the rubber mats, big wide stairs and railings when my son Charlie was younger. He was delayed in his gross motor skills, only walking at 16 months and then very wobbly (big head, long legs). Around the time he was 7, we started to get the feeling he was outgrowing playgrounds. Being tall, his rides on slides became very short (the big metal slide on the schoolyard was long gone). To make up for the loss of the thrill, he’d often want to walk back up the slide, which led to interesting negotiations with parents of far smaller children. He still does occasionally like a swing for the sensory input, but swings disappeared from most of our town’s playgrounds years ago, due to legal requirements about having enough space front and back so no child would be hit by another swinging child
Annie’s photos of a playground in Berlin leave me with complete playground envy as do these photos of playgrounds in Prenzlauer Berg by Cindy. I can imagine spending hours watching Charlie on this slide and this one and those rope bridges. Too much fun.
Safety has to be a top priority. But have playgrounds, at least in the US, become too safe, the equivalent of a Disney movie where things are bright and shiny, there’s a big of conflict and challenge, but no one ever gets hurt in the end?
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Photo by Uncle Saiful