Playing it Safe

Are playgrounds stifling kids’ needs to explore and sometimes even take a tumble?

Remember baby-proofing? Both fear and determination drove us to smother table corners and brick hearths with foam so our toddlers had free rein in the safe sections of home.

But what happens when we can no longer pad our children’s landings?

After reading a summer New York Times article, “Can A Playground Be Too Safe?” you may have felt nostalgic for the tall, creaky metal slides and jungle gyms of youth. Or you may have been worried.

Sources in the article suggest that modern, monkey-bar-free plastic playgrounds can actually bore children into taking unnecessary risks — even “stunt emotional development.”

“Risky play … provide(s) the child with an exhilarating positive emotion and expose(s) the child to the stimuli they previously have feared,” states Norwegian psychology professor Ellen Sandseter in Evolutionary Psychology. “While on the one hand children should avoid injuries, on the other hand they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both physically and mentally.”

But the Centers for Disease Control doesn’t confirm that progressive premise. The CDC’s “Playground Injuries” web page warns that nearly half of the 200,000 “playground-related” injuries in emergency rooms each year are “severe: fractures, internal injuries, concussions … and amputations.”

Perusing the suggested playground safety guidelines on websites like is a further buzzkill: “Concrete, asphalt, and blacktop are Safe unsafe and unacceptable,” it states. “Grass, soil and packed earth surfaces are also unsafe, because weather and wear can reduce their capacities to cushion a child’s fall. The playground surface should be free of standing water and debris that could cause kids to trip and fall, such as rocks, tree stumps and tree roots.”

Mothers like Amy Schmidt say they don’t have the time or desire to be this discerning about their children’s free playtime.

“When I was little, our playground was a tetherball and the parking lot,” she quips. “And my mom did not march all 14 of the neighborhood kids down to the tetherball and monitor us.”

While Schmidt will do what she can to prevent her two children from injuries, this self-proclaimed “non-Purell-toting mom” doesn’t want fear to rule her own or her children’s actions.

“I was panicking the first time I watched my 18-month-old daughter stand on the tall slide, but I knew she had to get down by herself,” says Schmidt. “As children grow, their challenges change; they conquer one thing, then they move up to the next one,” and she believes parents need to stay out of the way.

Professor Sandseter would agree, calling monkey bars and tall slides “the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and speed,” adding that children hurt before the age of 9 are less likely as teenagers to have a fear of heights.

While parents may have the freedom to choose the way their own children play during free time, adventurous options on a school playground are limited.

“The debate as to whether these standards are too stringent or not is irrelevant to our responsibility to meet the current industry standards,” says Gailen Luce, safety specialist for Spokane Public Schools. The 34 elementary schools in his district follow standards set by the Washington Schools Risk Management Pool. And their equipment must check out with at least three governing agencies: the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) and the IPEMA (International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association). There are a lot of acronyms in Luce’s job.

“Most of our playgrounds have slides of various heights and designs. Some are free-standing, but most are part of the composite equipment. We also have swings on several playgrounds,” Luce explains. He admits that liability is a major consideration in the design of playground equipment, but so are limited space and cost.

“We believe that the equipment we provide on our elementary school playgrounds is fun, challenging, age-appropriate and helps develop strong young bodies,” says Luce.

But mastering the tall bars and slides in life isn’t just about physical, social and emotional development, according to Elizabeth Schultheis, who taught lower elementary school in Spokane for 14 years. Schultheis asserts that “risky” play — even in small, controlled spaces — has an immediate impact on academic performance.

“Climbing upside-down on monkey bars, and swinging from your knees helps brain development. … You don’t get any of that on the ‘big toys,’” she says.

Schultheis and a fellow fi rst-grade teacher made sure their students had a chance to “twirl upsidedown” and “cross over their hands,” on high bars.

“After a half-hour of recess,” Schultheis explains, “their storytelling and creative writing was just fantastic! They had energy and enthusiasm.”

And she saw benefits with older students, too.

“With fourth-graders, I always taught long division after recess because they were physically ready to do it.” When children test themselves physically, she believes, they also become adept at testing themselves intellectually. “I believe it served both their logical mathematical thinking and creative writing.”

Psychological research and Schultheis’ informal experience show that even when children are injured by a fall, they don’t avoid the equipment from which they tumbled.

“They’ll take a day or a week off, and they will get right back on,” she promises. “If we let them fall and fail, they won’t have that fear, and they’ll keep trying new things and push themselves.”

But Spokane Public Schools Communications Director Terren Roloff points out that not all students stand to benefit from an injury caused by risky play.

“There are many studies that show students suffering from concussions perform measurably worse than other students in the classroom,” Roloff points out. “Students who suffer major injuries like leg fractures also miss out on physical activities and social interactions due to isolation.”

While Schmidt talks tough about her children climbing up the tallest slides, she also admits to spying on her 4-year-old son as he walks to the neighbor’s house.

“It’s, like, 30 feet, but you never know, right?” Schmidt laughs.

“I want my kids to take care of their bodies and have respect for their lives, and I also want them to be confi dent and figure things out,” she says.

Schmidt prefers her children never get hurt, but she knows failing — and falling — are an important part of the learning process.

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About The Author

Lisa Fairbanks-Rossi

A former TV news producer and teacher, Lisa Fairbanks-Rossi has been a freelance writer for The Inlander since 1994.