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Editorial: The Litigious Playground

“I am Tarzan!”

A popular fictitious hero since 1912 and in over 89 films, Tarzan was raised by apes who taught him the fine art of swinging effortlessly from one tree branch to another, pursuing deeds of goodwill like some jungle superhero/EMT/adventurer.

This summer I returned to the playground of my youth. Looking out to where it once stood, I fondly and viscerally recalled the old steel jungle gym where almost everyday I’d spend some time as Tarzan. It must have been only ten or twelve feet high but it made me feel like I was higher than the clouds. I’d spend hours on those monkey bars hanging upside down, sliding down the one of the inner poles or standing at its pinnacle, beating my chest like King Kong and croaking out the traditional Tarzan warning cry, “Ah-hee-ah-hee-ah!” From my high jungle perch I would look over the realm to see who needed my saving now. I might even have to “swing” over to the tall metal slide and extra high swing-set to get the job done.

Clearly my youth was one where “safety” had not yet been invented. Now, in place of those wonderful contraptions of fantasy fulfillment, excitement and danger sat an enclosed and colorful, safety-first plastic container less than five feet tall and housed on a rubberized safety surface. There was a slide in this piece of equipment with an incline so slight that gravity alone would never provide enough inertia to move a child from top to bottom. However, it did seem a good fit for the toddlers, preschoolers and their parents who utilized it. But, there was not a child aged six or older who could ever be entertained or satisfied using this particular apparatus anywhere in sight.

We all know what happened to get to this point. Sometimes kids fell and got hurt. Overtime, the old equipment was replaced because of parental concern and new manufacturer safety standards. But, the most frequent factor that heralded such change was, and continues to be, the fear of lawsuits.

Are playgrounds now too safe? If I were a parent of a child, or a principal of a student, who received a concussion or broken ankle I might say they are not safe enough. However, let’s examine the research and see what we might be missing.

According to David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, “there is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risks on playgrounds.” Though it seems counterintuitive, some injuries, like the long fractures of the arm “increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on the playground.” Apparently, if children or parents believe they are in an environment that is safer they take more risks and underestimate the performance of such surfaces. “Older children are discouraged from taking healthy exercise on the playground because they are designed with the safety of the very young in mind. Therefore, they may play in more dangerous places, or not at all.”

It turns out that “risky” play is important for childhood emotional development helping children “encounter risks and overcome fears” according to psychology professor, Ellen Sandseter at Queen Maud University in Norway. Dr. Sandseter identifs 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, and wandering 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.”

As parents and educators responsible for the safety, health and well-being of our children/students we need to ponder all the consequences of what happens when what we do in service to children is largely defined by lawyers rather than sound research and common sense. The beauty of Healthy Play is that even if we take away old-school playground equipment we can still address many of important developmental milestones. Through Healthy Play activities and rules we give children opportunities to progressively take safe healthy play risks to master emotional, behavioral and physical skills.

Keep the dialogs going about your school and neighborhood playgrounds. May the next generation of future Tarzans find playgrounds that stimulate creativity, excitement and mastery and recovery.

Okay, I know you want to do it. Go ahead. Pound your chest, channel your inner Tarzan and let out your best jungle holler…Ah-hee-ah-hee-ah!


*Research facts quoted from John Tierney’s July 19th, 2011 New Your Times article, Grasping Risk in Life’s Classroom

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