The debate about safety-first playgrounds rages on. But the hecklers of the 1990s now have a wealth of research to draw from. And nostalgia backed by science might be just the ticket needed to save the endangered parklands of the classic playground.
Last year, John Tierney of the New York Times asked, "Are playgrounds too safe?" According to the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Tierney reports “risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety.”
There is a reason children seek thrills - an evolutionary reason.
"While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive," writes Tierney, "— why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? — the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery."
“Paradoxically,” the journal writes, “we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”
Tierney further reports that the risk of some common injuries actually increases with the introduction of softer materials to playgrounds.
“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.
“This sounds counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t, because it is a common phenomenon," Ball says, "If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks. An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don’t understand its properties, they overrate its performance.”
Could innovative design strategies balance the fears of the old and the blandness of the new? The fact is, safety-first playgrounds do not seem as fun. Would you look at a low rubber slope and say, "Whoa, I need to climb that!"
Maybe if more playgrounds appealed to our childlike sense of narrative wonder this fine balance could be struck. Beauty and grace would appear as oft overlooked design factors and we'd see more parks like The Blue Whale in Plikta park in Gothenburg, Sweden, and the The Forest of Cherry Blossoms at Moerenuma Park in Hokkaido, Japan.
Hopefully the following outstanding playgrounds - some dating back to the 1970s - will challenge debaters to take up design in a seriously playful way.
The Blue Whale in Plikta park in Gothenburg, Sweden. Designed by Monstrum:
The Brumleby playground, Copenhagen. Designed by Monstrum:
Toa Payoh Lorong 6 playground, Singapore. Designed in 1979 by Khor Ean Ghee: