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Are Playgrounds Too Safe?

Submitted by Editor on August 29, 2011 – 10:02 pm | Print or Email »No Comment

by Mike Paulus (Hoover Avenue), illustration by Ian Kloster (This was originally published in Volume One Magazine, 8/4/2011)

Back in July of 2007, I wrote a column about local playgrounds, focusing on a particular piece of long-gone playground equipment. And this is what I said:

Remember the giant razor blade-like “slide” that used to be in Carson Park? What meth addict designed that thing? It was a giant triangle of super-polished metal propped up at an angle, capable of absorbing the sun’s rays and converting them into astounding amounts of knee-scorching heat energy. There was no ladder to get you to the top – you needed to either a) run up the thing extremely fast, b) scale the edge of the slide using a tiny railing, or c) rely on the friction of your bare skin against the smoldering metal to assist in your ascent. It was the most frustrating, elbow-bruising, noggin-clunking, ego-crushing piece of “play” ground equipment ever created. It was awesome.

This thing was forged (in the fires of Mount Doom, no doubt) long before the numbingly safe playground equipment of today. Modern equipment looks like it was made by Rubbermaid. Or Tupperware. Or both. The Razor-Slide of Aggravation would probably give today’s soccer moms a panic-induced aneurism. Sure, today’s equipment looks like plenty of fun … but the jungle gyms of old seemed to be a lot more open-ended and more imagination-friendly. Many of today’s playground apparatuses lend themselves to only one or two forms of play.

It’s pretty common for people my age – people whose childhood spanned the final years of “dangerous” playgrounds in America – to bemoan the loss of things like the triangle slide. By the time we were in our 20s, everything had changed. The slide was ripped out around 1992, soon after the Consumer Products Safety Commission released a new set of standards for playgrounds, producing a nationwide wave of safety makeovers for public- and school-funded playgrounds.

Yes, the elimination of these childhood icons … the triangle slide, the infamous rocket slide, towering towers of monkey bars, and so on … it sucks. But stick a cork in your bemoaning hole for a second. Before you get too angry at that persnickety ol’ Commission and their lack of pointy edges, consider that the biggest reason schools and public parks adhere to the new guidelines has less to do with protecting kids from injuries and more to do with protecting the operators from lawsuits. Yep, one more thing for which you can “blame the parents.”

Most complaints I hear about today’s playgrounds, with their bulbous plastic windows, low platforms, and excessive guardrails, can be boiled down as such: They’re boring. They’re simply less fun and less likely to spur imagination.

However, as a small town newspaper called The New York Times pointed out just last month, a much bigger problem has surfaced for today’s kids. In an article titled “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” writer John Tierney cites recent studies from Norway indicating that over-safe playgrounds “may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.”

Basically, they say modern playgrounds can cause more than boredom – they also contribute to significant emotional problems. Researchers observed children in Norway, England, and Australia, and they identified different kinds of risky play ranging from activities involving speed and moving parts to opportunities for roughhousing and wandering away from adult supervision. Some of the most revealing findings had to do with heights.

The studies show how there are natural lessons taught in the act of climbing (up trees and monkey bars, not steps and ladders). An element of danger will cause a kid to approach the challenge in a progressive manner, climbing a little higher on each attempt, allowing for a better mastery of the skill. Simultaneously, a high climb produces a physical thrill – the motivation to keep at it. Limiting process this removes a classic way kids “learn how to learn.”

Now, it seems logical that a kid who falls from a jungle gym will develop a fear of heights, but studies show that kids who are hurt in a fall before the age of nine are actually less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights. Looking at it from the other angle, a kid who doesn’t understand what might happen if they fall, and is constantly warned against it, can develop much higher levels of anxiety. So, when life presents them with heights, they’re scared and nervous and their thinking is clouded. Thanks a lot, super-safe playgrounds of today!

Besides emotional trouble, today’s playgrounds could also be physically harmful. David Ball, a professor at Middlesex University in London told the Times, “There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds,” and certain injuries have actually increased in playgrounds after safety measures were installed. He believes playgrounds can seem safer than they are, causing kids to take more risks as they underestimate actual danger.

As for the removal of the old triangle slide, former Eau Claire Superintendent of Parks Phil Johnson told me it needed an update, anyway. I’m sure the slide was pretty old even before I got a chance to fall off it, and that was almost 20 years ago. I’m assuming it was just there, and they built Carson Park around it, never questioning its purpose or significance. I’m betting it was built by aliens as a flagging device for The Day of Colonization. So in the end, it’s a good thing we tore it down, as our survival as a species pretty much depended on it.

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