By Laura Shin
Posting in Science
Some scientists say that "safe" playgrounds actually make children more anxious and fearful, while other critics dispute the idea that they are even physically safer.
Jungle gyms have evolved over the years.
Once ten-foot-tall, bare-bones metal contraptions set in bare grass or dirt have given way to colorful, shorter, purportedly safer (and less lawsuit-prone) wonderlands padded underfoot by materials such as rubber or wood chips.
But psychologists are raising concerns about the negative psychological impacts of these "safer" models even as studies about their physical safety benefits remain inconclusive.
Ellen Sandseter, a professor ofat Queen Maud University in Norway told The New York Times:
Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground. 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.
She and other psychologists believe that protective playgrounds have the opposite of their intended effect: instead of making children feel safer, and therefore braver, they actually make them more anxious and fearful.
How children approach playgrounds
Dr. Sandseter studied children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, and identified six types of risky play that they engender: exploring heights, moving at high speed, playing with dangerous tools, being near near dangerous elements such as water or fire, physical play with others (such as wrestling) and getting lost.
When climbing equipment isn't high enough, Dr. Sandseter says it becomes boring for children. When approaching a tall jungle gym, most children will not try to reach the peak on the first try, but over the years, they will work up to it and develop a sense of mastery.
Even if they fall while trying, falls almost never cause permanent emotional or physical damage. The Times writer, John Tierney, says:
While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: 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.
Psychological and evolutionary benefits of risky play
The gradual way in which children tackle progressively greater challenges when playing on jungle gyms actually mirrors a technique called habituation that therapists use to coach adults who have phobias, Dr. Sandseter and her fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair of Norwegian University for Science and Technology, argue in the journal Evolutionary Psychology (pdf).
They cite other studies showing that experiencing an injurious fall from height between the ages of five and nine was associated with not fearing heights at age 18.
After analyzing statistics of playground accidents from several countries, they also saw that injuries from children's play such as bruises, fractures and concussions, were generally temporary and rarely caused the kind of trauma that would affect normal development.
It seems counterintuitive to think that a tendency to explore heights would have an evolutionary advantage. After all, if children risk death, they won't be able to pass their genes on.
But, Sandseter and Kennair say, there are evolutionary benefits to doing so because it helps children develop the important skills of conquering fear and forging a sense of mastery. Not letting those develop has its own side effects. The psychologists write:
Paradoxically, ... our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.
Doubts about the physical benefit of 'safe' playgrounds
On top of the possible negative psychological impacts of so-called safe playgrounds, some researchers dispute the idea that they are physically safer.
David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London, tells the New York Times, "There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds." He notes that some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after softer surfaces were introduced on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.
Dr. Ball says this is because the children believe the playground is safe, and that prompts them to take more risks.
What do you think? Do you think that these researchers are overreacting and that "safe" playgrounds are not only physically safe but also developmentally beneficial to children? Or do you think that "safe" playgrounds aren't as safe as they are purported to be and that they are products of a culture of over-parenting and litigiousness?
via: The New York Times
Jul 18, 2011
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Our memories tend to focus on emotion, and the intensity of it. We don't remember dates that well, we remember what happened on those dates, and can thus get the date in our minds. When it comes to phobias, we are not born with all the ones we grow up to have. The ONE we might be born with, is fear of loud sounds. Many psychologists/psychiatrists SHOULD know this. Phobias are learned things. We aren't born knowing about hot things, or that they'll burn us. We learn. Either by being taught, or most likely by touching something hot.. and going 'ok, that was dumb' internally. What makes us FEAR things, is the inane ramping-up of emotions to hysterical levels by friends or most likely overprotective parents. Something bad happens.. A spider drops on your shoulder.. your mom flips out, smacking it off and screaming. Our subconscious remembers the pain, the fear and the HIGH level of anxiety from the event. If you're young enough.. you don't KNOW what's going on, all you know is fear, pain and extreme anxiety connected with a spider. THIS is what creates a fear of spiders or 'creepy crawlies' in our minds and embeds it so deeply. What likely most often makes kids (and then adults) scared of heights, is the fall, and then the 911 emergency room hysteria. the 'PC' playground is and always has been an idiotic idea. While I don't begrudge basic safety, the levels to which this country (USA) goes to lengths to protect people from themselves before they have a chance to learn things, is just moronic. Even at 37, I biked without a helmet, rode in the back seat of a car without a seatbelt, climbed up and even jumped out of trees, launched myself from swings at the highest arc I could manage and many other things. I have scars from scrapes and bruises from simply wiping out on rollerblades, a skateboard or my bike. I'm still here. Wiser, perhaps a bit sturdier.
Because these people had no excitement and danger whatsoever when they grew up. So as long as these playstuctures don't actually kill the children I say "Go for it".
I just watched my niece and nephew play on one of these "play structures" (huh?) over the weekend in a school yard. This one I think was a hybrid, in that it definitely encouraged some climbing and there would definitely have been bruises incurred by falling. One thing I DID like about this one that was different than in the past was the braille alphabet primer that was included on one of the structures. You should also read this month's Atlantic magazine cover, which is along a similar theme. Thanks for this post!
I grew up living near a playground that had 2 straight metal slides. The small slide was 10 feet tall. The jungle gyms were a 12 X 20 "house" that was 15 feet high at the "chimney" and a 12-foot tall rocket. Both were built out of heavy 1.5-inch plumbers pipe. We had a 16-foot across merry-go-round that could hold over a dozen kids until we spun it fast enough for them to start flying off. Growing up our parents, siblings and friends warned us of the injuries that could happen if we did something dumb. Looking back I can say they were our first real lessons on how to survive in the real world. Sure there were minor injuries, but we were kids. We also got injured playing ball in our own backyards so a few scratches from the park were no big deal. Accidents happened and none of our parents blamed the city when we got hurt. The usual response from parents was 'lets take a look at it' and 'what did you try to do this time?' In the 40 years that playground had those amazing play sets in use there was never a fatality, never an injury worse than a sprained wrist or ankle. They were removed just because the city became concerned a new generation of parents were going to be lawsuit prone instead of being good parents.
He fell and got it right through the neck. And lived. The video showed him sitting in the hospital with this 4 foot long handle sticking through his neck.
Researching this story, I kept remembering how much I loved jungle gyms growing up. Although I've never played on one of the new, "safe" versions, I do think they look like they offer quite a different experience. Maybe there will be a new movement for "retro" playgrounds! Laura
I think that stuff was standard-issue in the '50s & '60s. We had the "rocket". (4 levels and a slide) We had the merry-go-round with the objective was to get it fast enough to fling people off. We also had an elevated "fort", about 5-feet off the ground with a slide and aim-able metal cannon on the corners. Just checked on Google Earth to see what has happened to my childhood park. Surprisingly, the rocket is still there, although the slide has been removed. The monkey bars, merry-go-round of death and the politically incorrect fort are history. It's hard to discern exactly what has replaced those, but they all look plasticy and low to the ground. It's unfortunate that we will never likely be able to quantify the emotional and developmental costs imposed upon our children against the suspected costs of a a handful of bruises and sprains.