Taking the Adventure Out of Playgrounds

Looking to kill time and burn off some energy, my parents took my kids to the local elementary school, the same school I attended about 30 years prior. The kids love to race scooters on the big black top, then try out each of the three different playgrounds. Something was different this time, though. All of the play structures had been replaced with ultra safe equipment and flooring. Flooring seems like the wrong word for the ground outside, but the play ground stuff is closer to a bouncy gymnastics floor than the dirt and tanbark ground we had as a kid.

My kids insisted I take them back to the school, so I could see the new play structures too, but really what I noticed is that the main playground is now one third smaller. This new equipment isn’t cheap and it must have been easier to barricade off part of the old playground footprint than cover the entire site with super safe climbing structures. I didn’t see one swing. Maybe that means one fewer thing the kids will fight over because the replacement equipment seems designed to be used equally by many kids at once. No one kid can monopolize the swing or the straight bars. But it also means not learning to wait one’s turn.

It also means not learning how to calculate risks. The real world isn’t soft and squishy. Nothing feels conquered when only two feet off the ground.

My son fell off a structure and landed flat on his face. Truly. His nose and mouth hit the ground first, he bounced up, and walked it off. No blood, no bruising and no crying. I’m definitely happy for that, but at the same time, I want him to know that leaping between two distant structures doesn’t always have such a clean result.

My daughter said, “I bet you wish you went to this school now!” Actually, I don’t, which may have something to do with the number of portable classrooms, but even if only talking about the playgrounds, I’d rather have the old equipment any day. There were high bars, rings spread far apart, crazy tire swings, and landings that seemed as tall as a sky scrapper. When I left go with my hands and spun around a straight bar for the first time, the adrenaline rush was real. I pushed myself to do something scary and it worked. When it didn’t work, hitting the tanbark was awful. It hurt and splinters wound up everywhere, but it was a real consequence to be avoided. There wasn’t a safety net in the form of a bouncy floor, which meant we had to be careful and calculate our moves before leaping. The equipment had been replaced once before in the years since I attended, but I guess that still doesn’t meet the safety precautions wanted by parents, lawyers or insurance companies.

The playground even had a sign, posted in the kindergarten (the least likely group to read), highlighting “The Smart Way to Play.” My favorites were points four and five: “use the equipment correctly (see recommendations on the reverse side) for fun and safety,” and, “And above all, have fun!” I’d love to see a kindergartner read the fine print on the use recommendations before playing because nothing says fun like a legal disclaimer.

Keep the squishy flooring, but bring back the basic, tall equipment, bring back the lines for the swings, and the dizziness from the tire swing. Don’t pad off all of the adventure of childhood.

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  1. December 17, 2010
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