We Speak Playground

Building Risk Into Playgrounds

Posted by May Recreation Content Team on November 17, 2021

Are today's children (and their millennial parents) starved for risk taking? The popularity of reality shows like Survivor and Wipeout would suggest this is true as would their penchant for video games like Minecraft and Fortnite. All offer vicarious risk-taking from the safety and comfort of their homes.

What happened? Did the American obsession with protecting children against all odds lead to the disappearance of the slides, monkey bars, and swings that presented their parents and grandparents with daily lessons in risk-taking? Or was it litigious greed that led cities and towns to exchange these self-exploration free-for-all playgrounds for child-proofed parks filled with safe, sanitized structures that are oh-so visually pleasing but bore children to the extent that they ask to go home, so they can watch TV?

The Fringe Benefits of Yesteryear's Playgrounds 

No matter what the cause, the children of today are missing out on the opportunities the children of yesterday took for granted; the daily chance to judgeSmiling asian girl on a playground, horizontal how high they could climb on the monkey bars in light of their physical prowess. Nor are they learning the arm and leg coordination needed to reach exhilarating heights on the swings or learning to exercise the vestibular balance and strength needed to navigate through vertical space on the seesaw (not to mention developing trust in one's playmate at the other end.)

And if they overestimated their strength or agility they suffered the consequences, but they also learned from the experience and used it to their advantage the next time they attempted the feat. It might take several attempts to succeed but when they did, it bolstered their self-esteem and gave them the confidence to take on challenges beyond the playground into the classroom and later into their careers. 

Is It Time to Remove the Safety Bubble ?

.Physical therapists and occupational therapists are seeing the results of this lack of physical challenge in the form of an increasing number of children experiencing difficulty regulating their physical and emotional reactions in their social and educational lives. And who can dispute that more children are reaching weights bordering on obesity

The tide may be changing. In recent years a number of American playground manufacturers have cast an eye toward Germany, one of several European companies that have veered away from playgrounds of total safety to design and manufacture equipment that challenges children to navigate their way through difficult situations. Inspired by the sight of children as young as six years old wending through stacks of wire bucky balls to reach a dangling rope ladder, so they could haul themselves up to a platform sitting close 33 feet above the ground, the Americans returned home determined to give American children similar challenges. 

And so they came up with ideas that while adhering to the safety standards set forth by the Consumer Product Safety Commission whose raison d'etre is to make sure consumer products do not expose the public to what they call an unreasonable risk of injury, also provide America's children with structures that allow them to engage in sensory rich unstructured play. These range from multilevel climbing platforms integrated with slides, ropes, and walls to obstacle courses filled with climbing challenges that give children a full body workout that requires agility strength, and coordination; an experience that straddles the border between fun and exertion yet gives children the esteem-boosting satisfaction of knowing they have risen to all its challenges.

But isn't that what unstructured outdoor play used to be all about?

Topics: Childhood Unplugged Safety

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