The playground at my elementary school was divided into two sides: the little kid playground (K-2) and the big kid playground (3-4).
It was a momentous occasion when one moved from second to third grade because it officially meant one was old enough, wise enough and mature enough to play on the big kid playground.
The big kid playground was home to two very prestigious pieces of equipment: The Witches Hat and The Maypole.
The Witches Hat was a large metal structure that resembled a witches hat (clever name, right?). Children would hold onto the bars, run in a circle and be swung high up into the air as the hat rotated. Great fun.
The Maypole was another metal structure consisting of chains and bars attached to a large pole. Children each grabbed a bar, ran around a circle like crazy people and attempted to soar in the air.
Of course both pieces of equipment were made more fun when one could trick it up a little bit, by attempting to dangle by ones knees of the bars or standing on the bars or getting the big kids to hold down one side so the smaller kids were shot high into the air.
Fortunately both pieces of equipment were placed over a large strip of concrete, to break children’s falls as they flew off the metal bars.
There were many broken bones, at least four scraped knees and one bloody elbow a day and screams of glee as a result of such play equipment.
Although my elementary school is still alive and thriving (What’s up, Deener Dawgs??), the Witches Hat and the Maypole have since been replaced with the typical multi-level play structures and rubber wood chips of today’s youth.
Last week a study made headlines as it discussed the question “Are playgrounds too safe?” The idea behind this study was looking at the notion some critics have regarding the extreme safety measures taken when designing playgrounds. Critics believe that the “safe” playgrounds of today can stunt the emotional growth of children, leaving them with anxieties and fears (mainly the fear of heights since “monkey bars” and large climbing structures have become a thing of the past). Critics site new playgrounds as being boring and unable to provide ways for children to encounter and overcome their fears.
Opponents of this research on “too-safe” playgrounds say that there is no clear evidence that safer playgrounds have lowered the risk of injury. In fact, some believe that safety measures such as rubber wood chips give an illusion of safety and potentially put children at a higher risk of danger.
The question remains for today’s parent: Are playgrounds TOO safe?
In my opinion, no.
The structures are there for children to play and explore. We have all seen children climb to the highest peak of play equipment, regardless of the absences of traditional monkey bars. We have witnessed kids master rock climbing walls, something the playgrounds of my youth never had. Occasionally we stumble across an ancient merry-go-round (or in our case, the new version made for one) and spin our kids fast until their little world turns hazy and green. Although structures are different from days gone by, they can still be manipulated by a child’s imagination into something magical and entertaining.
And they still help children burn off all that excess energy, which is why most parents take their children to the playground in the first places.
What can (if anything has) contribute to the rise of fears and anxieties in children generated on the playground is the new phenomenon of “Helicopter Parenting.” Parents feel the need to be their child’s safety net as they navigate play equipment, letting out little gasps and muttering “Be careful!” at every pass and turn. We attempt to protect the children from their own play in hopes of creating a safe outdoor setting. In this attempt we can either make children anxious about their ability to maneuver on the equipment or we over-direct their play and stifle their imagination. My oldest fell from a piece of play equipment (one of these new “safe” ones) at the age of 2.5. One of the worst parenting moments to date, especially since I can be Queen Helicopter Mom on any given day. Although I was a wreck, he was fine after a few tears.
What do you think? Are playgrounds too safe? Are parents too anxious these days?
Should we bring back the two story metal slide and concrete playgrounds or stick with the tubular structures of today?