In today’s age of tech savvy children playground designers are constantly designing new and innovative play components to attract today’s wired-child to the playground. This approach to new and innovative designs many times comes into conflict with society’s preoccupation with over protecting children from life’s bumps and bruises. As children continuously seek new ways to challenge themselves beyond the virtual world of video games they need the elements of developmentally appropriate challenges and calculated risks in order to allow them the opportunity to test their limits, be creative and imaginative in order to solve problems, and provide them with opportunities for learning and correcting mistakes.
A research report issued by the Health and Safety Executive and Play England is beginning to address the issue of too-safe playgrounds and the developmental benefits associated with risk and challenge within the playground environment. The report entitled Managing Risk in Play Provision indicates that it is perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate for children to get slight injuries while playing on playgrounds and that part of play is grazed and skinned knees. Adults want playgrounds to be safe, but there has to be an element of risk and challenge associated with it otherwise the playground is boring and uncreative.
Many parents today are over-anxious about their child becoming injured during play, and in response many public facilities have dummied down their playgrounds in response. The effect is that children have no interest in playing on many of today’s playgrounds or those that have played on them once have never returned.
“Research from our Playday campaign shows that nearly half (47%) of adults think it is unsafe for children to play outside without an adult, 49% of parents do not let their children play outside without an adult, and over a third (37%) worry that their neighbors will judge them if they let their children play outside unsupervised.” (Play England)
Parents and caregivers perception of free-play and minor injuries associated with play are key to changing the trend of dummied-downed playgrounds. When we become overly concerned with eliminating every potential bump or bruise on the playground, we also eliminate the potential for healthy lifelong developmental skills. Our ability to survive and thrive is based on our ability to overcome risk, adapt to problems, and conquer challenges. Ultimately, life is a risky business. Mike Conway of Play England states:
“(The) play area is as safe as reasonably possible and protects against major injuries, but if children can benefit from challenges like climbing, running or trying new skills that it allows for minor injuries”. (Telegraph)
The current trend that has emerged with standard playground design is that playgrounds have become dull and boring with no opportunities for risk-taking and challenge. In response to this, current approaches to playground equipment design and safety stem from the view that play equipment should be as safe as necessary not as safe as possible to allow children to engage in experiences that offer challenge and excitement.Challenging playground equipment that provides for safe risk-taking helps build resilience, persistence, and problem solving skills that enable children to become confident, creative, and independent thinkers who are capable of making appropriate decisions and take responsibility for their own actions. To achieve this, children need to engage in risk-taking in a safe environment where risks are suitably managed. Sir Digby Jones, HTI President remarks:
“If we never took a risk our children would not learn to walk, climb stairs, ride a bicycle or swim; businesses would not develop innovative new products, move into new markets and create wealth for all: scientists would not experiment and discover; we would not have great art, literature, music and architecture”.(Jones)
Risk during free-play is a part of child development and affords children the opportunity to challenge their individual limits in an environment that factors in their developmental growth and age. As England moves closer to many other European perceptions of providing challenge and safe risk within children’s play environments perhaps it is time for the United States to become more tolerant to developmentally appropriate challenges and calculated risks that have the potential for slight injuries. Our current guidelines focus so much on eliminating every possibility of injuries on the playground that it has forced many manufactures to consider litigation potential before they consider developmentally appropriate design. This thinking and fear of even the slightest injury has far-reaching consequences for today’s children and future adults in that it deprives them of the ability to be creative, innovative, problem-solvers, risk-takers, and independent healthy adults.
Play is risky, but if it wasn’t filled with some element of risk and challenge it would be boring and unattractive to children and the consequences are hyper-protected and sedentary children and that ultimately cheats them of valuable childhood experiences.
Jones, Sir Digby (2007) Releasing the Potential for Children to take Risks and Innovate.Cotton Wool Kids Issues Paper 7
Play England. “Grazed knees beat cotton wool culture.” 10 October 2010. Web.5 December 2010.
Telegragh, The. “Children ‘learn from cut knees’.” 8 October 2010. Web. 5 December 2010
JC Boushh is a recognized expert in the field of playground safety, play environment design, and child development. He has lectured worldwide as well as authored numerous articles on playground safety, developmental benefits of play, and has a deep commitment to preserving all children’s right to play. He is the head designer for Design for Play, and serves as an outdoor environment project manager, play consultant specializing in designing for children’s developmental needs through play, and a third-party playground inspector.