The too-safe playground

Playgrounds can be too safe, writes John Tierney in the New York Times.

Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries — and the evidence for that is debatable — the critics say that these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.

“Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway. “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.”

Children sometimes get hurt, but the pain doesn’t last, studies show: “A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of height.”

The old tall jungle gyms and slides disappeared from most American playgrounds across the country in recent decades because of parental concerns, federal guidelines, new safety standards set by manufacturers and — the most frequently cited factor — fear of lawsuits.

Shorter equipment with enclosed platforms was introduced, and the old pavement was replaced with rubber, wood chips or other materials designed for softer landings. These innovations undoubtedly prevented some injuries, but some experts question their overall value.

If the playground is designed for toddlers, older children may find more dangerous pursuits.

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