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


Angel B.
Angel B.5 years ago

Children should be allowed to play , but along with it we should keep in mind the cleanliness
of the surrounding area and the playground equipment on which they are suppose to play.
Play Equipment for

Angel B.
Angel B.5 years ago

Children should be allowed to play , but along with it we should keep in mind the cleanliness of the surrounding area and the playground equipment on which they are suppose to play.
Play Equipment for Kids

janet T.
janet t6 years ago

Things have gotten so bad they have even given up swings in most schools. I remember the competition to swing the highest in our school and not one kid got hurt. In many schools they have given up recess altogether as if fresh air and exercise were dangerous.

Shannon C.

I came across this article via Google and just had to comment. Last weekend, my town came together and built a new playground for our community. Of course the conversations during the build centered around the 'old equipment' and how unsafe it was. Our tall metal slides are long gone, I can remember sliding down them so fast! Now we have short, plastic slides. The metal monkey bars had to be taken down as well. One of my fondest memories was watching in awe as my neighbor did a flip off of them. Can't do that with the new stuff! Someone might fall. Someone might SUE. (I swear, if I hear the term 'liability' again, I might scream!) Everything on our playground had to be carefully planned, and measured, and 12 inches of woodchips laid down. On a related note, our elementary school, located in a neighborhood of houses and sidewalks in a very small town, has a total of about 5 walkers. I see parents walking their 5th graders to the front door on a daily basis. Are these kids ever going to learn to be independent?
I agree with the other posters, we are taking safety so seriously that our children will never know fear. They are never going to learn to take care of themselves, to learn how to fall and get back up, to learn what danger is and how to handle it themselves without mommy or daddy holding their hand. I think that when they grow up, and get in the 'real world', they will be in for a shock! Let your kids walk to school once in awhile. Ride their bike wit

Dana W.
Dana W6 years ago

I grew up during the era of metal monkey bars. Unless you managed to bonk your head or a tooth, the damage wasn't caused by the bars but by getting pushed or falling off onto a hard surface below.

The only way for children to play safely is to encase them individually inside a bubble and where's the fun in that?

Tom Y.
Tom Y6 years ago

"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."

Now why does this not surprise anyone?

I remember a cylindrical, tapered monkeybar Rocket on the grounds of my old primary school; climbing to its top got you nearly level with the school roof ten yards over, and it had a nose cone you could cling to as you looked around. If you didn't want to climb all the way, it had fin-like ladders near the ground, and of course the body was set in concrete down at the bottom. Little kids got their first taste for the climb there. Other, shorter monkeybar sets were installed adjacent to the Rocket. Our sneaky pedagogues were setting us up for physical activities, and we playingly bought in.

A subsequent generation of educators decided it was all too risky. The Rocket's gone. There are no monkeybars in that schoolyard now.

I feel like my past was vandalized, and I worry for the coddled generation at that school...

Maarja L.
Maarja L6 years ago

I'm kind of happy we don't have so strict policies in my country. I couldn't imagine a playground without a swing.

Amanda M.
Amanda M6 years ago

Modern "safe" playgrounds are the same as today's so-called "children's" programming on TV-DUMBED DOWN to the point of imbecility! Only the little kids will have fun on today's playground equipment-once they hit grade school, forget it!

Tamara H, I too have fond memories of waxing the slides at the local playground when I was younger. There's nothing like going down a metal slide on a piece of waxed paper and feeling the speed increase with each "run!" Of course, you can't do that on today's slides-they're too short and made of PLASTIC!

I feel sorry for the kids who go to the park in our town for entertainment. There's still decent playground equipment there with some tall slides (one tube, and some "bump" slides as my older daughter called them, but I think the spiral one got taken out-BOO!), some swings, a couple of teeter-totters, and a merry-go-round, but if you're not into that or too old for it, forget it. There used to be a small skatepark there, but it got taken out, and there's a couple of basketball hoops. That's about it. No tennis courts, no public swimming pool, nothing.

And the cops wonder why the teenagers and adolescents keep getting into trouble-they're BORED!

Jarno L.
Jarno Lahtinen6 years ago

Back when I was a kid in Finland (I'm 35 now), we had some really fun playground things, and none of them were particularly safety-consciously designed. My favorite was this high pole that had a spinning carrousel wheel on top, that had ropes hanging down, with wooden trapeze bars. You would grab the trapeze bar, and run around the pole as fast as you could, and with just a few people running like this, the motion would fling you in the air, hanging on the trapeze and wizzing through the air around the pole.

Not exactly safe, and I did have a few falls that hurt me a little, but I learned my limits, and had fun doing it.

Playgrounds should obviously be guarded against severe threats and risk factors, but kids need to be allowed to explore their limits, and a too tame of a playground is a boring playground.

Jade H.
Jade H6 years ago

Having grown up in Arizona - running barefoot most of the summer, eating mudpies we created ourselves, staying out till the street lights came on (out on the main roads), and horror of horrors (!), drinking out of the end of the hose (!!), I'm constantly amazed that I've made it to social security age! ROFLMAO If we are depending on the next generation for anything "non-techie" we are definitely SOL! Blessed Be!