The case for keeping playgrounds fun

My family was fortunate enough this last summer to spend some time in Europe. I walked with my wife, my kids and brother’s family through a park in Kiev Ukraine. We stopped to play on an old fashioned teeter-totter and my brother commented that you don’t see these around anymore. I explained that the fear of lawsuits have made schools and parks remove the play stations of our youth, and how sad it was that our kids would have to travel abroad to experience a see-saw. But this post is not about the tragic elimination of fun because of the fear of litigation. It’s about another effect of removing playground fun.monkey-bars-15965022

The school my sons go to have a large monkey bar dome outside, and I hear parents talking about how they won’t let their children play on them because of the fear that their child may be hurt. I am sad for those kids because I remember sitting and watching my son, probably 5 at the time, playing on the dome after school one day. He climbed up a bit and then back down. He ran around with his friends then climbed a little more. This repeated until he called to me at the top of the dome “Dad, look at me.” “Wow” I shouted, “nice job, can you see our house from there? Is Mom home yet?” He surveyed the area then realized that I was being silly.  But the look of accomplishment on his face is something I will never forget. He tested his own comfort at that height. He tested his strength at climbing and balancing. He tested himself; and he passed his own test.

There is a developmental benefit to allowing children to explore spaces, heights, and other surfaces on a playground. Yes there is risk, but without risk the child doesn’t develop a sense of getting comfortable with testing their own limits and don’t have to learn to critically think about what and how to achieve. Children naturally develop a comprehension of their own potential by playing “risky” activities. Dr. Ellen Sandseter, a psychology professor at Norway’s Queen Maud University identifies 6 areas of play that are important in the development of a child: exploring heights, speed, tools, elements (fire and water), rough play, and being separated from an adult. Ok, re-read the list and take a deep breath because my first instinct was that I don’t want my kid doing any of that. But I have to admit that growing up, I climbed trees, and onto rooftops, I tackled roller coasters and loved long fast slides. I learned to use tools with my brothers and built some pretty cool things with them. I learned to swim early on and loved camping and sitting poking sticks into a campfire. And roller coasters weren’t the only thing I tackled, I occasionally tackled my brothers (or honestly they tackled me). Those are natural and beneficial activities that kids need to experience. Can you honestly say that, as a child, you didn’t experience these things? And you lived!

Unfortunately nowadays most playgrounds are being designed for younger children. Older kids (8-12 years) are bored immediately and react in one of two ways: they either leave and miss out on physical play and exploration because it’s too “babyish”. Or they change the setting to increase the thrill and make it age appropriate. My 9 year old loves to jump from the tower at the local park because the slide down is too slow.  I am sure that my 5 year old, Emmett, will jump from the tower this summer because Owen does, and in my book that’s OK. I certainly do not want him to be injured but I do want him to explore his boundaries and test his limits.

We are so concerned that our children will be damaged physically or emotionally by skinning the proverbial knee that we don’t allow them to try anything that could be “fun.” We need to change our perspective and see activities as a child sees them: is this fun? Of course it would be.  What I find most interesting about the concept of keeping kids safe is that children who are injured after falling are less likely to be traumatized by heights as an adult than those who never climbed as a child. A fear of the unknown can be debilitating more than a fear of consequences known. That means that playgrounds can be too safe and we need to let children be children. We need to allow them to develop naturally, the way we all did. We need to be able to comfort a child while asking “are you going to do that again?” and know that we were present when the child learned that maybe that jump was too much for them to repeat. But if they didn’t have the opportunity to learn that lesson they would likely be more afraid their whole life. That is not something I am willing to accept for my children.

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