Playground Danger: Balancing Safety and Learning
Anyone remember the days when we used to get splinters in our fingers from trying to build a fort or clubhouse with old wood and our dad’s rusty old nails and hammer? Anyone remember the days when we used to ride a bike without wearing a helmet or knee pads or wrist guards? Anyone remember when we used to be okay with skinned knees—they were just a part of growing up? Where falling off a slide and failing to accomplish something in a single go was actually part of the learning process we needed to cope with life. These experiences taught us about our limitations and abilities, and compelled us to strive to do better next time.
Seems like eons ago, doesn’t it?
In today’s world of padding every possible surface and “don’t let your kids do anything that could put them at risk for even a bruise” type thinking, have we, perhaps, gone too far in child proofing every environment that our children come in contact with. While there is a certain logic that comes from playground safety evaluators, have we created an environment where our children are so safe that they don’t learn anything? Have these safe environments made us, as parents, too comfortable in our seats as we watch our kids play from a distance? Failure, or at least perceived failure, and injury actually serve a very important learning experience for our children. We have become a society where failure is unacceptable and psychologically damaging to a child. But what if those experiences were necessary for a child to deal with the reality of failure as an adult – not getting the job, romantic breakup, losing a job or taking a pay cut, or the consequences that come from making a single mistake? We’re training our kids to think that making a mistake is wrong when the fact is that we learn more from our mistakes than we do our successes. Our kids can too.
Obviously, though, there needs to be a balance between these learning experiences and real, life-threatening dangers for our children.
Playgrounds and Childhood Development
I think we all recognize that children need to play to learn. From birth onward, we learn from touching, smelling, tasting, pushing, pulling, twisting, swinging, crawling, climbing, sliding, spinning….you name it. Not only does skill and cognitive development result from play, but also the need for simple physical exertion and interaction with the playground activities and other children. Children learn courtesy, rules and boundaries, how to play safely, how to stay out of the way of the swings, how to quickly get out of the way at the bottom of the slide, how to bend their knees when they jump from a height to help absorb the impact, what happens when their feet don’t land solidly on the ground. These are lessons kids simply can’t learn from anywhere else and from any other experiences.
Playgrounds encourage and teach children:
- Exploration and discovery about themselves and the world around them and how they interact with that world
- When to and when not to take risks
- Strength and self-confidence when they conquer a playground task that they once couldn’t do
- Fine and gross motor skills
- Cardiovascular health and endurance
- Love for the outdoors and outdoor activities to counteract society’s increasing dependence on TV and other sedentary activities
- Physics – Why do we slide down and not up? Why can’t I slide across the sand?
- Chemistry – What happens when water mixes with sand?
- Biology – What happens to a caterpillar in a chrysalis? How do plants grow? Where do mushrooms come from?
“To learn about their own physical and emotional capabilities, children must push their limits. How high can I swing? Do I dare go down the slide? How high can I climb?…To learn about the physical world, the child must experiment with the physical world.” (Johnson)
“ ‘Children must encounter risks and overcome playground fears, monkey bars and tall slides are great. They approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner. Let them encounter these challenges from an early age and they will master them through play over the years,” says Ellen Sandseter, professor of psychology at Norway’s Queen Maud University. (The Telegraph)
If we take away playground activities that teach our children these boundaries and rules about how the world works, where else are they going to learn it and what are we teaching them instead?
Playground Safety: It’s just Common Sense
Every year, over 200,000 children are treated in emergency rooms in the United States for playground-related injuries, the most common injury being broken bones. Approximately 15 children die every year in the United States due to strangulation or head wounds as a result of accidents on the playground. And every time one of these incidents hits the air waves, there is an upswing of protests and public outcry for more legislation governing this, and another law governing that.
It’s interesting to follow a trend happening in Europe, right now, with the establishment of “dangerous” playgrounds. Playgrounds with merry-go-rounds, see-saws, monkey bars, climbing frames, rolling logs, and zip lines. Denise Brown, Manager of the Berkeley Adventure Playground, found that, in evaluating the European model playgrounds, there were fewer injuries than on standard U.S. playgrounds.
Perhaps all that’s needed is a little common sense from everybody.
1) Protective Surfacing – Look for a park with hardwood fiber or mulch, sand, pea gravel, or a rubberized surface that can cushion a fall and prevent head injuries or strain to joints and muscles if a child should fall. They will still learn what happens when they fall without more serious consequences. Advocate in your community to replace concrete or asphalt with one of the above surfaces.
2) Fall Zone – Many playgrounds now provide a fall zone, a portion of ground surrounding and beneath the playground activity (slide, swing) with protective surfacing.
3) Sharp edges and entanglement hazards – Since you can’t examine every park surface, plan for your child not to wear hooded garments or scarves or clothing with draw strings around the neck while they play. These things can get caught in S-hooks or protruding bolts or screws. Report sharp edges to whomever is in charge of maintaining the park and ask that they be fixed. Watch out for edges on rungs or handholds that may protrude. Advocate that those items be fixed or replaced and do not allow your children to play on those structures.
4) Entrapment strangulation – Sometimes strangulation can happen not just from cords or caught clothing, but from a child’s head that can’t fit through a hole. Playground openings should be between 3.5 inches and 9 inches.
5) Equipment spacing and time of use – Playgrounds where there are too many activities too close together can result in overcrowding of those areas. Plan your playground time when there might be fewer children, be extra vigilant about supervising your children in these situations, or simply move your children to a different, less crowded area of the playground. Current safety standards require that there be no more than 2 swings on structure at a time, and that there be at least 12 feet between individual play structures.
6) Lack of Maintenance – Watch out for playground components that are missing, broken or worn out. Hardware should not be loose. Wood, metal and plastic components should show no signs of wearing or falling apart. Surfacing material should also be evenly distributed.
Some of the sources I read in researching this topic suggested measuring everything to make sure it all fell within certain parameters. I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to carry a measuring tape in my purse and have my children sit in the car until I measure everything and then declare the playground safe or unsafe.
I think in many of these cases common sense, alertness, and participation with our kids, is really all that’s needed. They need to be encouraged to take risks, to try activities that will challenge them. But we need to balance those activities with constructive rules and boundaries that will keep them from going too far with their playground experiments.
A danger-less playground isn’t necessarily the best playground. If there is no challenge for the child, the child doesn’t learn. Let’s be safe, but let’s not go too overboard.
Darlene Oakley is a freelance writer for EmpowHER.com.
Outdoor Play. Excerpt from Play, Development and Early Education. Johnson, Christie and Wardle. Web. June 5, 2012.
Avoiding Danger at the Playground. Karp, Hal. Parents.com. Web. June 5, 2012.
12 Hidden Playground Dangers Every Parent Should Look Out for. Momlogic.com. Web. June 5, 2012.
Dangerous Playgrounds Are Good for Your Kids. Hammond, Darell. Huffington Post. Web. June 5, 2012.
Are Safe Playgrounds Hurting our Children? Hammond, Darell. Huffington Post. Web. June 5, 2012.
Playgrounds to revive potential dangers. Ward, Victoria. The Telegraph. Web. June 5, 2012.
Putting the Danger Back In Playgrounds. Hemingway, Mollie. Mommyish. Web. June 5, 2012.