According to ASTM 1487 & the CPSC, we have two age groups for playground standards: 2-5 and 5-12. In addition, they have recently introduced another standard for playground manufacturers for 6-23 month-olds. In short, the playground standards are based on anthropometric data (comparative sizes/measurements of children at age 2, 5 &12), empirical data of types of injuries on playgrounds, and the developmental appropriateness of the types of equipment. For example, the CPSC says that horizontal ladders should not be used for 2 and 3 year olds. It’s only at age 4 children start to develop the physical ability to use upper body equipment such as horizontal overhead ladders, overhead rings & track rides (CPSC 5.2.4).
And as an onlooker, I see parents put their children on equipment which is not developmentally appropriate for them and I think, “Hey, they aren’t ready for that!” The danger is that a child might think that they can use that same equipment when their parent isn’t there to help them.
I get it.
But, when I’m at the playground with my little nephews and nieces, I put aside such guidelines and I encourage them to play on the equipment they feel most comfortable on. I know them and I know that they want to challenge themselves, and I feel confident they know their own limitations. So when my 3-year-old nephew, Oliver, wants to go on the overhead bars I help him.
Yes, I said it, I help him.
Let me make this point though: As he started to climb the step ladder to get to the overhead ladder, he told me he couldn’t do it and asked for help. The reason he couldn’t climb the step ladder is because the spacing of the bars is meant for the reach of a 5-12 year old. I felt comfortable helping him because he communicated to me that he couldn’t and wouldn’t do it without me.
Another day when I had my 6-year-old nephew, Benjamin and his 3-year-old sister, Claire at a playground with a cable net structure (appropriate for ages 5-12), I let them both climb. Benjamin took off right away and figured out how to navigate the climbing and the spaces where he could comfortably reach. I climbed right behind Claire and she wanted me there just as much as I wanted to be there. She wasn’t interested in getting to the top like Benjamin; She was happy to climb up a few feet and then bounce on the slightly flexible cable. I like the interactive approach to play. Notice I didn’t say the hovering approach.
I recently had a call from a concerned parent who was at one of our playgrounds. She asked me “what was the probability that her 5-year-old child would fall?” How does one answer that question? The fact is that the piece of equipment that she was on, a cable net structure, according to standards, is appropriate for 5-12 year olds. As with anything, a parent still has to use their judgment and knowledge of their children at the playground. If you know that your child is the type to go beyond their limits and then freeze, you may want to climb with them and teach them how to navigate and determine their limits.
Sometimes we forget that children have been challenging and pushing all on their own since they were born, eager to communicate, to crawl and to walk (among many other things!). Yes, they fall, they get bruises and scratches but they get back up again because they want to walk and be like those around them.
The playground standards were developed with the purpose of reducing life-threatening and debilitating injuries (ASTM 1487-07 Scope). Of course that is of utmost importance to us as playground manufacturers, sales consultants and parents! But it is equally important that children still have the chance for challenge and risk. They learn their abilities by trial and error. Only when they continue to test and push themselves will they improve their strength, agility and an understanding for calculated risks.
So this is my confession as an aunt on the playground. I am that person whom I used to tisk tisk for helping the child use equipment which they are, “technically speaking”, not ready for. And now, I believe that playing is a stretching exercise – one that tests the ability of our children to try new things, and one that tests our ability to let them.