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The Changing Shape of America’s Playgrounds

Contributed by Kevin Rossignol

America’s playgrounds have undergone a transformation over the past few decades. The once tall and sprawling wood and steel structures have been slowly replaced in favor of playgrounds that put safety, rather than enjoyment, above all else.  If you venture out to a park with a newly built playground, what you’ll find is a multi-colored configuration lined with a soft rubber padding that seems slightly out of place amongst the grass and trees.  The iconic playground structures adults remember growing up with, such as see-saws, jungle gyms and tall slides, will almost certainly seem smaller and modified, if they are present at all.

These newer playgrounds represent a fundamental change in the way play infrastructure is designed. In decades past, playground designers focused on providing structures and activities that posed a challenge to kids.  Jungle gyms, monkey bars and tarzan ropes provided children with thrills, such as tall heights and fast speeds, while simultaneously aiding with essential developmental skills, like risk assessment and spatial judgment. Though older playgrounds may trigger nostalgic memories from a seemingly bygone era, the enjoyment they provided came with risks.
According to a report published in 1999 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission  (CPSC), more than 200,000 children were being treated in emergency departments every year for injuries sustained from playground equipment. Bone fractures were the most common injuries sustained (39 %), however concussions, internal injuries and even death have all been reported. This relatively high rate of injury became a problem for both playground owners and builders who feared a backlash of lawsuits from parents of injured children. In response, many playground equipment designers began to focus on safety rather than developmental benefits.

Play frames made entirely of wood or steel were phased out in favor of newer designs that used plastic and a minimal steel framework. In an effort to reduce injuries from falling, playground owners began replacing dirt and mulch surfacing with rubber mats and finely processed wood fiber. The CPSC and the American National Standards Institute have created  their own sets of national regulations that establish the criteria necessary for playgrounds to be deemed safe. The CPSC’s “Public Playground Safety Handbook” introduces height limits on structures and lists ways that playground manufacturers can avoid common playground hazards including entanglement, entrapment and tripping.

Despite these changes, little evidence has been produced to show any reduction in injuries. In fact, there is more evidence to show the opposite effect. The abundance of safety measures seen on modern playgrounds may be increasing the number of broken bones kids suffer. David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University of London, is quoted in the New York Times as saying that the number of injuries actually increased after playgrounds in Australia and Britain installed softer surfaces. “If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks. An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don’t understand its properties, they overrate its performance.”

Other evidence challenges the traditional notion that children who suffer a nasty fall are more likely to have a fear of heights as adults. Research shows that children who sustain injuries from falling are actually far less likely to have a phobia of heights later on. Norwegian psychologist, Leif Kennair, has demonstrated that kids who are allowed to engage in “risky play” are able to gradually conquer a wide array of fears, including a fear of heights. He states that “risky play is a set of motivated behaviors that both provide the child with an exhilarating positive emotion and expose the child to the stimuli they previously feared…these situations and stimuli may be mastered and no longer be feared.”

Risky playground equipment may be more beneficial for children, but playground owners and manufacturers are opting for “safer” equipment to lessen their legal liability for playground-related injuries. Nonetheless, the threat of lawsuits appears to be somewhat exaggerated.. According to a law review conducted by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), very few playground owners and manufacturers are found negligible in cases where parents have sued because of child injury. One case cited by the NRPA involved a 9 year old boy who tried to climb on top of a 7 foot high play structure with a slanted roof, but ended up falling. His parents unsuccessfully sued the manufacturer of the play structure arguing that it was unsafe. The court ruled in favor of the manufacturer after concluding that the child was sufficiently intelligent enough to know that he could fall off the structure and potentially injury himself.

Other courts that have heard these cases have followed the same precedent. Playground manufacturers and owners are held liable only in cases where a child is injured as a result of negligent maintenance or defects of playground equipment. As a result, lawsuits filed against playground builders and landowners who follow set standards are rarely successful.

If playground owners have little to fear from lawsuits, and children appear to fare better with more challenging playgrounds, why aren’t jungle gyms making a comeback? The safety-first design philosophy has considerable momentum and continues to shape parents’ perceptions of what an acceptable playground ought to look like. But playground builders have slowly started to reintroduce modern versions of the old stuff. Newer playgrounds feature climbing walls and rope nets that mimic the same thrills that super-tall jungle gyms used to offer. And many older playgrounds are still in use in cities across the country. So those children who just aren’t satisfied with the current crop of playgrounds can easily find a thrilling adventure right around the corner.

Kevin Rossignol is a writer and outreach coordinator for Budget Dumpster. His writing covers a broad range of topics concerning the environment and sustainability, and is a fervent parks enthusiast.

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