Researchers: Playground Risk Good for Children

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Norwegian researchers contend that playground design that places a premium on safety may actually stunt child development, according to a report in today's New York Times.

"Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground," Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway, told Times reporter John Tierney. "I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed."

The benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery outweigh playground dangers, suggest Sandseter and Leif Kennair, a psychologist at the Norwegian University for Science and Technology, who write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, "Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety."

Broken bones suffered as a result of playground falls, the most common cause of injury, rarely leave a child with any permanent physical or psychological damage. "Paradoxically," the psychologists write, "we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology."

Studies have indicated that a child who's hurt in a fall before the age of nine is actually less likely to fear heights as a teen. "Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run," Sandseter told the Times. "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."

Recent innovations in the interest of safety have included lower-profile equipment with enclosed decks and a variety of resilient surfacing materials. But some argue that too much precaution may have unintended consequences. "If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks," David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London, told the Times. "An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don't understand its properties, they overrate its performance."

In addition, "older children are discouraged from taking healthy exercise on playgrounds because they have been designed with the safety of the very young in mind. Therefore, they may play in more dangerous places, or not at all," according to Ball.

These sentiments echo what Tim Karl, Detroit's chief of landscape architecture, told AB in 2009. "If they're going to jump off the equipment, they're going to go from the railings," said Karl, who insisted that impact attenuation tests performed on his playground surfacing account for the extra 38 inches posed by a deck enclosure. "They may try to do a tightrope walk, and if they fall, we can say we've been proactive."

Equipment heights that encourage self discovery coupled with surfacing that mitigates injury risk represent the best of both worlds in today's playgrounds, according to surfacing manufacturer and safety consultant Rolf Huber, who told AB, "Reducing the challenge on the playground, which is sort of the knee-jerk reaction, is not a good thing. Don't go away from the high stuff. Then you get kids falling out of trees because there's no challenge on the playground. Instead, put a surface in that's protective." "I think safety surfaces are a godsend," New York parks commissioner Adrian Benepe told the Times' Tierney. "I suspect that parents who have to deal with concussions and broken arms wouldn't agree that playgrounds have become too safe."

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