Saturday, July 23, 2011

Playground Safety Isn't a Bad Thing

John Tierney appears to have no love for internal consistency. In complaining that modern playgrounds are too safe he argues,
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.
What does this mean in relation to modern, "safe" playgrounds?
“There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds,” said David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London. He noted that the risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.
The problem, then, is that safe playgrounds are making children less fearful of heights? While it's easy to believe that minor bumps, scrapes and bruises can help a child recognize that certain activities that look scary are reasonably safe, there's no reason to believe that the same holds true for serious injuries. Tierney chooses not to identify or link to any of the "studies" that support his assertions, but I doubt it's as binary an issue as he would have us believe. As kids are still getting injured, albeit in many cases less seriously, they should still be building a tolerance for heights.
“I think safety surfaces are a godsend,” [Adrian Benepe, NYC parks commissioner] said. “I suspect that parents who have to deal with concussions and broken arms wouldn’t agree that playgrounds have become too safe.”
Tierney blames the move for safer playground equipment and safety surfaces on lawyers, purporting that "Fear of litigation led New York City officials to remove seesaws, merry-go-rounds and the ropes that young Tarzans used to swing from one platform to another", linking to this article:
Monkey bars are disappearing in all parts of America, as safety guidelines, guarantees of accessibility for the handicapped and the play industry's self-policing have coalesced to force them out.

"The biggest reason is that this old playground equipment is not safe," said Dan Wagner, vice president of Landscape Structures Inc., a major manufacturer of new-style equipment based in Delano, Minn. "It's going on everywhere in the country."...

Many doctors agree that monkey bars are dangerous. "Of all the equipment in parks, it seems like the jungle gyms are worst in terms of injuries," said Ann DiMaio, director of pediatric emergency room services at New York Hospital/Cornell University Medical Center.
The article does mention fear of litigation, but does not suggest that those fears as opposed to the changes being principally motivated by improved safety and compliance with updated safety guidelines. The most serious injury mentioned in the article was a broken collarbone, with no indication that anybody even hinted at suing.

Here's the deal: Yes, safety standards change over time. Yes, as a result a lot of things that used to be less safe and more fun are now more safe and, in some case, less fun. Yes, that means if you ignore modern safety standards and regulations, you open yourself up to potential litigation when somebody is injured as a result of your bad choices. But Tierney's own source makes plain that the principal reason for making playgrounds safer is nothing more than that - diminishing the frequency and severity of injuries. That's a bad thing?

Also, while Tierney suggests that modern playground equipment is less fun than historic playground equipment, he misses a number of important issues. The first is highlighted in the article he references:
Dr. Harold Koplewicz, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the Schneider Children's Hospital of Long Island Jewish Medical Center, said the important thing is to give children of all ages as great a sense of freedom as possible. If a parent is screaming at a child to be careful on the monkey bars, it defeats this goal.

"We all had glorious times on the jungle gym when we were kids," Dr. Koplewicz said. "But for today's child, there is no loss. It is better for him not to be watched all the time."
The second is that children engage in a great deal of play that does not involve playgrounds and play structures. Tierney confuses novelty with sustained interest:
Still, sometimes there’s nothing quite like being 10 feet off the ground, as a new generation was discovering the other afternoon at Fort Tryon Park. A soft rubber surface carpeted the pavement, but the jungle gym of Mr. Stern’s youth was still there. It was the prime destination for many children, including those who’d never seen one before, like Nayelis Serrano, a 10-year-old from the South Bronx who was visiting her cousin.
There are monkey bars in a school playground near where I used to live, along with a couple of modern play structures, an older wood structure, swings, basketball hoops, and other amusements. The monkey bars, most often, are abandoned. As were the monkey bars at my childhood elementary school.

For all of Tierney's concern about a loss of opportunity for "risky play" on playgrounds, I'm left wondering how much time he has actually spent watching kids play. I took my daughter to a playground a couple of years ago, and while she was enjoying the structure, slides, tunnels, and was practicing jumping or dropping to the ground from what to a four-year-old was still a considerable height, a couple of tweens were also playing on the structure. And I do mean on - canopies and covered slides may be intended to keep the elements out and kids contained, but for older kids they can be just another platform to climb on. As for the concern,
“Older children are discouraged from taking healthy exercise on playgrounds because they have been designed with the safety of the very young in mind,” Dr. Ball said. “Therefore, they may play in more dangerous places, or not at all.”
At my childhood elementary school, the play structure was for "the little kids". Older kids were simply expected to find other ways to play, and the older kids did exactly that. Further, the idea that a school can provide a play structure of sufficient size and with sufficient variety to keep kids interested in sustained play, day after day, year after year, is absurd. If they're occasional amusements, fretting that they won't be the principal source of a child's exercise, moreso an older child's exercise, is similarly absurd.


  1. Many people loose focus on what playground safety is all about.

    Playground safety standards have been developed as a result of playground owners and administrators not maintaining their playground and playground equipment. Many serious injury and deaths have occurred as a result of neglecting this basic Duty of Care for children.

    On observing children on playgrounds, I found that most children were afraid of the older pieces of playground equipment and resorted to playing in the sand boxes only. The standards have challenged manufacturers of playground equipment to be more in innovative in their design of playground equipment and in recent years playground equipment now offers more play value and reduced the risk than in the past.

    Playground equipment now allows more users to be on the equipment at one time and play elements are not hogged by one individual
    Children who were afraid of equipment now participate in activities on the new playground equipment.With my observation only a few children mastered older playground equipment and the other children felt left out. Playground equipment was designed for the purpose of helping children to socialise and communicate with other children and I think this is exactly what the new safer playground equipment does.

    There are other places where more challenging playground equipment can be accessed in places such as adventure play parks etc.These parks offer the excitement for the very adventurous child.

    As time moves on, I have no doubt that more exciting playground equipment will manufactured.

    Standards have saved the lives of many children and prevented many serious injuries especially spinal injuries that have left children paralysed.


    Forget the litigation and laws and focus on what is important and that is the children who rely on us to create a safe environment for them.

    Would you not want the same if you were still a child?

  2. Your arguments, and rebutals are weak. I can't go through it all because it would mean ranting for longer than you. I just wanted to say you're article is so horrible I cannot but hate you as a person.

    1. It's nice to get an incoherent comment every now and then - I don't get many idiots or trolls here - so thanks for dropping by.


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