Could Safer Playgrounds Be Scaring Our Kids Straight?

I’ll never forget the day we got a new jungle gym at my elementary school. It was the mid-1970s, and we all showed up one morning to find what looked like a spaceship where a rickety playset used to be. It was a huge geodesic dome with brightly colored hexagons connecting a geometry of metal bars. At recess my fellow first-graders and I bolted toward the thing and scrambled up it like soldiers taking Normandy.

We soon mastered it: We’d hang upside-down from the bars, sway Tarzan-like from rung to rung, turn flips, and dare each other to jump from increasingly greater heights. In our imaginary play, the jungle gym was, at turns, a castle, a jail, a mountain, a spaceship, a house. But what I loved most about it was climbing to the top and just sitting there. I was only six years old, but crouched atop that dome, I felt like a giant.

You don’t see such tall jungle gyms anymore. The current generation of play structures are squat, meandering deals, often with a soft cushion ground cover beneath and carefully planned landscaping all around. The neighborhood playground I take my kids to resembles a scene from the summer Pottery Barn catalogue, with its tasteful browns and forest greens. You half-expect to see tiki torches along the curved, faux-wooden walkway, maybe some Adirondack chairs at the foot of the gentle, taupe-colored slide.

As The New York Times reported in last week’s Science section:

“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.”

The problem with this development is that, as we increasingly try to protect our kids from harm, we may be keeping them from taking risks crucial for their development. The Times article cites a recent Norwegian study by Professor Ellen Sandseter of Queen Maud University in Norway:

“After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.”

Sandseter found the riskier the play, the less likely the child was to develop phobias later in life. When we take away the risk of falling, she posits, we may be preventing a broken bone but also increasing the possibility of future anxiety. Yet another way our generation of parents may be creating unforeseen problems for our kids as we constantly try to protect them from harm.

I’m not really one to talk. Just this past weekend, I sat nearly petrified on the beach as I watched my eight-year-old son being tossed on his raft by moderately rough waves out on Lake Michigan, where we were vacationing with family. When I swam out to make sure he was OK, he was laughing wildly as the waves crashed into him.

“Are you OK?” I yelled over the surf.

But he didn’t even hear me.

“This is so much fun!” he shouted, without looking at me. He was too busy, his face aglow, looking for the next big wave.