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Are boring playgrounds hurting our kids?

One of the first things that happened when we got to Guatemala last year was that the little North American girl we were traveling with fell off the slide on the playground. The playground here is rough: the slides are high and bumpy, the monkey bars dangle just out of reach, and the teeter totters smash down hard when they fall. And the whole playground is built on top of pock-marked concrete.

Looking at this playground, rough and ugly as it is, leaves me wondering whether North American kids are being over-coddled on today’s playgrounds? When we first got here last year, my daughter hurt herself everyday on the playground. The Guatemalan children never did. Is it because that North American children no longer learn how to play safely within their boundaries?

It is one of my regular rants: we are making playgrounds so “safe” in Canada and the U.S. that we are making playgrounds boring and our kids are becoming playground dumb. Gone are the merry-go-rounds, teeter totters, high swings, jungle gyms that tower over our heads, and the really high slides and monkey bars. Around my house in Canada, they have been replacing the interesting, sometimes rough, playgrounds with cute little plastic structures that are more likely to be handicap accessible and seem to appeal more to my two-year-old daughter than to my six-year-old child. Her older friends have abandoned the playground to climb in the trees or to climb on top of the swing set and do tricks up there.

In the New York Times article: Can a Playground Be Too Safe? the authors suggest that making playgrounds too safe can actually harm our kids. They point to research that shows that “A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.” The article also references Dr. Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway who says: “Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground.”

She isn’t alone in her theory.

“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” she writes in a co-authored article in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

Boring playgrounds aren’t proven safer


NYTIMES photo by John Tierney childhood relic

“There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds,” said David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London. In the NYTimes article he postulates why this might be true: certain types of injuries are made worse by the softer surfaces, parents and children think the surfaces are safer than they truly are, or simply the playgrounds get so boring that older children stop playing in them and find real thrills (and real risks) elsewhere.

What I find is that when you take North American children out of their boring playgrounds, they are not prepared for the playgrounds of our childhood. They don’t know that if you get off a teeter totter at the bottom the kid at the top falls and they don’t have the same kind of balance that allows much younger children in Central America to swing from the top of the ladder onto the slide without falling.

From watching my kids and the other kids that come to visit San Marcos la Laguna Guatemala and the very rough playground here, kids can learn learn how to play safely on a challenging playground. They just may fall a couple times in the process.

Read more abouting the problems with boring playgrounds.

Written by Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama.

3 responses to “Are boring playgrounds hurting our kids?”

  1. Ruben Anderson says:

    You might like my post about a great playground in Paris…

    • Manda says:

      Ruben! I LOVE this… I love the concept of “we could suck a lot less” and I love the photos of all those fun, “dangerous” parks. I am about to publish an all-knew piece on playgrounds… any chance you would let me use a photo and link to your article? Thanks for sharing!

    • I LOVED your post Ruben. Thank you so much for sharing.