Jeremy Olson writes about children and families, and is an overscheduled father of two. His blog tackles the best and worst of parenting, families, health and love. He wants to hear from you - what's going on in your house?

Do safe playgrounds turn risk-free kids into nervous adults?

Posted by: Jeremy Olson Updated: July 21, 2011 - 12:25 PM

My childhood was just before the advent of the safety revolution, at a time when the squared, metal jungle gym was a standard site on any American playground. Remember this thing? Your kids probably don't.

I vividly recall the zip line at Lake Independence, which hurtled you through the middle of the playground and sent you flying -- "splat" -- into a cargo net. (Of course, I also recall a friend doing a pull-up while on the ride and needing stitches after he lifted his head into the metal line.) And while not a public park, I fondly remember the fun house at Arnolds Park at Lake Okoboji in Iowa. If you didn't leave there bleeding, you weren't trying. God help you if you fell while walking through the rotating barrel at the fun house. I swear the thing was made of concrete!

So I read with interest Monday's New York Times piece on whether playground safety has gone too far. Some experts believe children are being harmed by the absence of danger. A recent Norwegian study suggested that we "may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play." 

Translation: if we don't conquer the fear of climbing that tall jungle gym as kids, we'll still carry around some of that fear and nervousness later in life.

Other experts told the Times that the construction of ultra-safe parks may have the opposite effects -- making small children feel too safe and boring older children to the point that they leave in search of riskier pursuits. The article quoted Dr. David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London:

“This sounds counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t, because it is a common phenomenon. If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks. An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don’t understand its properties, they overrate its performance.”

The article sited many of the reasons for the growth of safer playgrounds, particularly the cost of insurance, federal safety standards and the risk of lawsuits. Of course, I don't think the risk -- or the perception of it -- has been completely routed out of playgrounds. Remember that image above. Is it really all that different from this common site at modern playgrounds?

Don DeVeau, a planning director for the Three Rivers Park District, said that "risk is being programmed out of play areas," but that creative designs can still give kids a sense of challenge and adventure. The district's new play area at Lake Rebecca features a 22-foot-high fire tower (though DeVeau said the district could only find one company in the U.S. willing to build such a lofty play structure). 

Other examples: The sheer size of the new Elm Creek playground is exciting to kids. The towers of the Hyland Park playground seem really high in the air to kids, but the equipment is built against a hillside and is generally close to the ground as a result.

"We're trying to create that idea," DeVeau said, "that there is challenge here, there is adventure." 

What do you think? Have playgrounds lost their pizzazz? As a parent, are you happy about the tradeoff of risk for safety? 

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