Can a Playground Be Too Safe?

I thought this NYT article from awhile back was a good tie-in with yesterday’s article on roughhousing.

The article details the way in which “dangerous” playground equipment–high monkey bars, tall jungle gyms, seesaws, merry-go-rounds, tire swings, etc have been removed from many of America’s playgrounds. They have disappeared because of parental fears of injury, and most of all, cities’ fear of litigation. But without this kind of equipment, kids miss out on risk-taking opportunities that help their cognitive and behavioral development:

“Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway. “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”

After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.

“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

“Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,” they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this “anti-phobic effect” helps explain the evolution of children’s fondness for thrill-seeking. While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive — 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 psychologists write, “we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

Read the whole article: “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” (NYT)


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Rick B February 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm

The playground of days past was the setting for one of my very first accomplishments: climbing the monkey bars. I tried like crazy, and every time I failed. I’d tell my dad, and he’d say, “So what? That doesn’t mean you stop trying. You want it, you keep at it. I’ll let you know when you can stop”. And you know what? He didn’t tell me to stop, and one day, I made it across.

Those are the kinds of experiences kids are missing out on due to hand-wringing parents. Kids are durable. My kid brother had a friend who had his leg impaled on a wrought-iron spike when he fell out of a tree. Nearly killed him and took a lot of stitches to fix, but I’ll tell you what–he always made sure to keep his eyes out for trouble and have steady footing after that. AND his folks didn’t sue the neighbor after that!

Michael February 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm

While cities and schools present a problem when they remove “dangerous” equipment from playgrounds, parents are the most important factor. Parents allow their kids the freedom to try new (and even slightly dangerous) things. Parents take steps to ensure that children aren’t killed or maimed in their attempts.
This is where dads, especially, can come in to play. While there are exceptions both ways, dads are more often the parents who rough house, throw babies in the air (and catch them), swing their kids by the arms, and generally give the kids the encouragement to try climbing the monkey bars or that big rock on a hike. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my wife do those things. She doesn’t discourage the behavior, but doesn’t encourage it either.
Dads need to be comfortable encouraging their kids in this manner. They need to trust themselves as good parents. Their wives need to trust them too.

Marnie February 9, 2012 at 7:43 am

There is a great book called “You Just Don’t Understand” about how men and women communicate. The author begins by noting that during part of her marriage, she and her husband lived apart because of their work. She notes that when people asked her about the arrangement, she took their questions as genuine concern and as the questioner seeking information about how they made their marriage work despite this hardship. However, her husband took their questions as a challenge, as though the questioner was implying their marriage was unstable or illegitimate. I mention this because of Michael’s last statement that “wives need to trust” their husbands. Women are working with about half the muscle mass and twice the fat as men and a substantial reason they don’t, for example, throw their babies in the air is because it wouldn’t be safe. When the average mom cringes at the sight of her baby three over her head, I am confident the cringe has NOTHING to do with whether she trusts her husband. It has to do with the fact that her baby is three feet over her head. If husbands bear this in mind and approach the conversation from that angle (she’s concerned about the BABY, rather than the idea that “she doesn’t trust me,”) my opinion is that there will be a more productive conversation with a better outcome.

Marnie February 9, 2012 at 7:50 am

So, rather than answering a wife’s concern with the standard, “she’s fine.” A husband might say something like, “Let me toss her in the air a few times and if she cries, I’ll stop. But, I think she’ll really like it.” … I’m just sayin…

john February 9, 2012 at 8:26 am


You just exposed one of the major differences between men and women. “She’s fine” is only two words, and sums up the situation. You want him to say twenty-three.

David February 9, 2012 at 8:43 am

I would agree mostly, but I just read about a kid that died in a playground fall (landed on his neck I believe) at the age of 5, so I think perhaps supervision is needed until they reach a certain age.

Frank Martin | Modern Monkey Mind February 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm

David, agreed, but supervision isn’t the same as removing all danger from the play environment. I think this whole thing boils down to a trend in popular culture to refuse to take responsibility. Instead of accepting that getting hurt is part of growing up and won’t cripple a kid, some parents (I refuse to believe every American parent thinks this way) seem to believe it not only IS, but it also must be someone’s fault. My dad grew up in the fifties, in the boy scouts, when that meant actually going camping constantly, 12 year olds carrying knives, etc. During his childhood he got countless cuts, scrapes, broken bones, etc, and came out of it unscathed. If you look at how most kids react to getting hurt, nine times out of ten, they’ll be back to normal in a minute or two. Its not the kids that get traumatized by getting hurt, its the parents that get traumatized by seeing their investment get damaged.

Michael February 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm


You’re reading more in to my statement than what I actually am saying. However, a dad shouldn’t have to defend his actions when parenting a child any more than a mom should. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the attitude from some moms (by no means all, or even most) that they know better than dad how to care for a child. It’s great to have a conversation about roughhousing, but dads need to be trusted (and trust themselves) that they have their child’s well being as an utmost concern.

Erin February 9, 2012 at 1:32 pm

The article brings up a fabulous point: children need the opportunity to learn to assess risk for themselves. I was chuckling as I read it because, as the mother of two almost-grown children and one grown man, we’ve seen inaccurate risk assessment in action the past three months: the 15-year old boy broke his leg skiing (guess he wasn’t ready for that slope on day one of the season), the 12-year old girl broke both her wrists attempting to box jump 27″ (oops…should have jumped back when she balked), and the 20-year old broke his ankle slipping on ice outside his apartment (should have paid more attention to his surroundings). My point? The only one that raised my husband’s ire was our daughter. (The boys were a) well, he should have taken more care his first day out…he’ll know for next time and b) damn, that is his driving ankle, that is going to be such a bummer!) His daughter, though, was a completely different case. First thoughts he expressed to me: A) Why weren’t you there? (I was…right across the room. In fact, I’d just told her she was doing well…because she was) B) Why did you let her do that? (What? She’s really good at box jumps…), followed by C) Why didn’t you catch her? (Huh? You think I stand behind her when she box jumps?), and, finally, evolving to D) I feel so helpless when she gets hurt. So, moms might be perceived as overprotective with babies (I know I sheltered mine with my very body), but the men I know would wrap their daughters in bubble wrap if they could. A problem? Not for me. She has me to help her learn to take risks. Her dad is teaching her she’s worth cherishing. As for the boys? I fussed over them a bit (not too much) and their dad is teaching them to be men. I think the system works.

Chris February 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm

What I’ve noticed about kids is they will away find a way. I made a toy bow for my son out of an old swing part. Within a day he was using it as a gun despite my many attempts to educate him how it was “supposed” to be used. At our neighborhood playground, the kids, for a lack of challenge, always climb on top of the equipment or on the outside like little spider-men. And my rule is always if they got up there they can get down so I don’t want to hear “I’m stuck”. Of course I’m still right there just in case but I don’t let them know that.

wesley February 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Some good memories from when I was a little kid.

1. Throwing rocks at the Conrail freight train that went by my pre-school.
2. Same pre-school had a wooden boat. Yellow jackets would make nests inside. We would run in, kick the nests, and run away. Eventually the nests would fall down and we would keep them in our lockers.
3. Playing on the swings, swing as high as we could and then jumping off.


Dan February 10, 2012 at 11:14 pm

My elementary school had a ‘roller slide’, basically 100 long metal cylinders in a row, similar to one in a box shipping facility. It was the highlight of the playground. But too many kids got their fingers pinched and they replaced it with your normal slide, fortunately after I had left.
Other good equipment that is hard to find – spinning UFO/merry go rounds, half dome monkey bar bubble, and I can’t even imagine this existing anymore, a 30 foot high slide in the shape of a rocket near Fayetteville NC. No tube cover, no guardrails, nothing.

Bill M February 15, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Many safety concerns are born out of possible lawsuits. I never wore a helmet riding a bike or playing hockey.. Come to think of it, this may explain some things about me.

Mark Ruddick February 16, 2012 at 11:32 am

Boys will engage in risky behavoir, period. They need to have experienced some cause and effect as children to prepare them for later life. My son got his first knife at 9. Someone asked, aren’t you afraid he’ll cut himself. My answer was that I hope he does, so he learns that knives are sharp and how to handle them properly.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: