The thrill of the playground is gone. It hasn't just been supplanted by the lure of high-tech gadgets and fast-paced video games, although those do take their share of the blame for the nation's childhood obesity epidemic. The real problem, say playground researchers and child development professionals, is that building standards like those specified by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission limiting how fast or high a child can go and accessibility requirements dictating equipment placement have brought too much order to playgrounds, making them unappealing to children.
"Over the past 50 to 70 years, we have put in place a series of measures that were all designed to reduce child injury and death," says Ian Proud, research manager at Lewisburg, Pa.-based Playworld Systems. "There was a real problem to which we have responded. We have succeeded in making playgrounds safe, but we need to understand there's always something lost when something is achieved."
The excitement of the playground diminished, children often opt for more interesting, less active activities, a trend that researchers think is a contributing factor in childhood obesity rates. More disconcerting, however, is the effect that these no-risk playgrounds have on children's psychological development. Children are not given any opportunity to take risks, researchers say, and miss out on the experiences that inform their risk-taking abilities later in life.
Research by the Confederation of British Industry tied the absence of risk exposure in childhood to a lack of self-management, leadership and entrepreneurial skills, creating a generation of what the CBI referred to as "cotton wool kids." Further studies have also shown that lack of exposure to risk can lead to anxiety issues, phobias and neuroticism.
In a paper published in Evolutionary Biology, Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway, identified six categories of risky play that contribute to a child's development: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements, rough-and-tumble play, and wandering alone, away from adult supervision.
"Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run," Sandseter later told The New York Times. "Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years."
Not that children won't find their own way to create risk. Dr. Rebecca Sargisson, a psychology lecturer with the University of Waikato Tauranga in New Zealand, has found in her studies of playground behavior that children will repurpose playground equipment to create more excitement. "The perception that an activity is safe may lead a child to take greater risks," Sargisson warned in a report to the Tauranga City Council on a planned playground installation. "Any further attempt to reduce injuries in playgrounds will likely be at the expense of challenging play opportunities, and risk-taking should be acknowledged as an important planned function of public playgrounds."
Now, after years of attempting to weed any possibility of danger out of playground design, more playground manufacturers are devoting their attention to reintroducing that element of risk into equipment. "We in the industry need to differentiate between a hazard and a risk," says Proud. "A hazard, for example, would be a platform without rails built at a height that might cause injury, versus a balance beam a foot off the ground where there's still a sense of losing balance, falling - a perceived risk."
There has also been a push to include more natural elements in playground design to encourage more free play, which is believed to be vital to the development of a child's creativity and self-worth. A study conducted by the University of Tennessee's Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies, which concluded this past fall, examined the differences in behavior of children on both traditional and natural playgrounds. Elements of traditional playgrounds such as swings and slides have a prescribed method of use, but natural elements, say researchers, allow a child to develop their own way of playing.
Playground manufacturers today are faced with the challenge to find a balance between the litigation and helicopter parents that dominate today's society and the children for whom their equipment is designed. "The age at which a child uses a playground seems to be decreasing," says Proud. "The question we have in front of us is, 'How do we retain a child, keep that bond moving up?' We are trying to keep playgrounds relevant."