Are Safety-Obsessed Playgrounds Spoiling Our Children?

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Current safety standards veer public playgrounds towards the benign realm of soft and cushy: sharp edges are covered, jungle gyms and monkey bars are miniaturized to reduce the height children can climb and the whole things are placed on shock-absorbent wood chips or rubber mats to cushion the blow when children inevitably fall.

But are we really doing our children any favors by taking all the risk out of playtime? Some pediatric experts are saying no -- in the pursuit of protection for our children, we have stunted their ability to fend for themselves.

In a recent paper published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Norwegian psychologists Ellen Sandseter of Queen Maud University in Norway and Leif Kennair of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology write that "risky play" among young children is a necessary experience that helps children learn to master their environments. Protecting children from any risks in their playtime could breed children that are more likely to be anxious and afraid of danger.

"An exaggerated safety focus of children's play is problematic because while on the one hand children should avoid injuries, on the other hand they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both physically and mentally," the authors write.

"Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology," they add. "We might need to provide more stimulating environments for children, rather than hamper their development."

Manhattan mom Sandra Carreon-John, 39, couldn't agree more. She says the public playgrounds in New York no longer hold children's interest or give them enough activity.

"It shocks my husband and me that playgrounds in the city don't provide enough physical challenge and activity for kids," she says. "We actually go out of our way to search for playgrounds that offer rings and monkey bars so that our [7-year-old] son can really play.

"I feel badly that my son will never really know what a see-saw is or what scaling a jungle gym is like," she says. "It is sad that our litigious society has paved the way for the 'playgrounds' our kids are forced to endure."

St. Louis, Mo., mother Kristi Kovalak similarly bemoans the loss of merry-go-rounds and other traditional toys her two sons love to play on: "Part of growing up is learning your limits and [playgrounds should be] a great place for parents to teach their kids to test themselves. How high is too high? How fast is too fast?"

Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, says the slow disappearance of more traditional "risky" playground toys has more to do with litigation than with proven safety issues.

"That's the world you and I live in," he says. "But I don't think that should discourage us from getting our playgrounds safer, while striking a balance between safety and play value.

"We want kids to challenge themselves on playgrounds, that's how they learn," he says. "We know that inevitably they will push themselves too far and fall, but what we want is to provide an environment where they can fail without breaking a bone or suffering traumatic brain injury."

Cushioning the Blow of Childhood Play

The gradual bubble-wrapping of public playgrounds occurred in response to growing evidence that a substantial number of injuries, some serious or fatal, were occurring on kid's playgrounds. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more 200,000 children a year go to the emergency room with playground-related injuries. Between 1990 and 2000, 147 such visits resulted in fatalities.

Further research has looked into how kids were getting hurt and what could be done to prevent it. A 2008 study published in the journal of Clinical Pediatrics found that 75 percent of injuries resulted from falls, hence current guidelines in some cities that require climbing equipment and slides be a maximum of 7 feet high to reduce the chance of falling injuries.

Seesaws and merry-go-rounds were concerns for pinching injuries when children got caught underneath them and ropes posed strangulation risks, so these playthings became scarce.

So where do we draw the line between allowing children to get messy -- and perhaps a bit scuffed up -- for the sake of life experience, and protecting them from serious injuries like head trauma and broken bones?

Ironically, Sandseter and Kennair note in their paper that playground injuries may have more to do with the risk-taking behavior of the child than with the equipment itself.

"No matter how safe the equipment, the children's need for excitement seems to make them use it dangerously," they write.

In other words, the Evel Knievel kids that try to do backflips off the slide are going to hurt themselves no matter how much shock-absorbent padding we put down.

But this doesn't mean that that we shouldn't try to reduce the risk of serious injury, Smith says.

One of the best ways to strike the balance between safety and fun is to improve the grounds of playgrounds, he says. Making sure that surfacing under playthings is maintained and cushions the fall is a way to reduce injury severity without lessening how fun or challenging the equipment is, he says.

That way, the daredevils will at least have a softer landing pad.

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