Are Playgrounds Too Safe? Some Play Specialists Say Yes

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Should playgrounds be a little less safe? That's what some play specialists are advocating. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for Lincoln Avenue Capital LLC)
Should playgrounds be a little less safe? That's what some play specialists are advocating. (Gerardo Mora/Getty Images for Lincoln Avenue Capital LLC)

A New York City-based nonprofit begs an interesting question: Are “safer” playgrounds actually making children less safe?

Newer playgrounds are often made with a rubbery floor surface instead of more traditional options, like mulch or asphalt. The rubber provides a soft ground for children to fall on. The idea, of course, is to keep children playing safer.

But the nonprofit play:groundNYC says lowering children’s risks on the playground is not equal to increasing their safety.

“What the spongy surface playgrounds don't do is teach kids that there is a consequence to falling, and they won't learn anything from it,” says play:groundNYC Executive Director Rebecca Faulkner. “The spongy surface really just teaches them that the ground is soft, which, of course, it's not.”

Instead, play:groundNYC believes children learn, develop and play more successfully when they’re presented with risk and are held responsible for the decisions they make about how to treat those risks.

For example, in one of the New York City adventure playgrounds, children can play in a toolshed stocked with real tools, from hammers and nails to saws, Faulkner says.

That may sound like a nightmare to some parents, but children aren’t without supervision. The nonprofit hires trained “play workers” to assess the risk the area presents to children and look after kids at play without hindering their curiosity, she says.

“One of the things that we have noticed is that kids are really good at risk assessing their own behavior,” Faulkner says. “The reason that they have accidents sometimes is because there's a lot of adults around who are very cautious and nervous and keep telling them to be careful and watch out. And if you remove that component and you instead have trained play workers who are specially trained to support kids in their play and to not intervene all the time, then kids are more likely to take risks, but guided risks where they don't wind up hurting themselves.”

Still, watching your child play with a saw and not being allowed to intervene can produce a lot of anxiety for parents, so play:groundNYC has a solution: don’t let parents watch.

Parents sign a waiver that gives play workers full responsibility to the care for their children while they play in the adventure spaces.

“We did that in part because we wanted to limit the amount of intervention and adulteration, as we call it, of play,” Faulkner says. “And so that the kids could play freely and make their own decisions.”

Though rubbery-surface playgrounds seem to be everywhere, Faulkner says she thinks the idea of adventure playgrounds will catch on. Not only because they help children develop, she says, but because they’re cheaper.

“More and more communities are realizing across the United States that adventure playgrounds [and] loose parts, materials playgrounds are actually greener, less expensive to build,” she says.

No matter the cost, what Faulkner finds most important is giving New York City children the chance to explore in a new environment.

“I think the crucial shift is with parents who tell us all the time this is their kid's favorite place to play, because this is the only kind of environment that exists like this in New York City,” she says.

Francesca Paris and Todd Mundt produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Lynsey Jeffery adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on February 21, 2020.


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