A Playground Plea

Hi Folks! This post comes to us from Ian Proud,  research manager for Playworld Systems, where he championed the development of the playground equipment that appeals to all kids – including those with non-obvious disabilities, like autism — by being fun for everyone.  He also teaches product design, marketing and creativity courses at the college level, and declares “a lifelong fascination with trends, the future, and how we manage change.” He’s ahead of the curve on this issue. – L.

Playgrounds: No Danger = No Fun? by Ian Proud

Most children yearn for a sense of thrill and excitement on the playground.  During my childhood in Britain the playground in my park had three simple pieces of equipment: a merry-go-round, high swings and a tall metal slide (all installed over blacktop). Once the merry-go-round got going, it seemed to take forever to slow down. The slide terrified me as it climbed into the clouds, and the swings felt as if they went into orbit. I had an injury-inducing run-in with the merry-go-round while retrieving a tennis ball from under it. Once I grabbed the ball, the underside of the rotating platform gouged my hand. I wasn’t playing on it, I was playing around it. The equipment wasn’t unsafe, but I was injured because I wasn’t using the equipment the way it was intended to be used. That’s the issue that recurs in our dialogue about children and the outdoors, the manufacturer’s responsibility to protect people from the misuse of the product.

I doubt anyone would argue that an outright danger (or hazard) should be eliminated. The question is should a feature that increases excitement, engagement, encourages longer periods of use and frequent returns to the playground be eliminated, even if misuse would be harmful?  The current answer in the playground industry is absolutely yes, manufacturers do eliminate them to protect themselves since product liability damage awards can be so punitive.

Lenore said a few years ago in Salon that, “we have certainly been working to make our playgrounds safer than safe — maybe even safer than fun.”  As a research manager for a playground equipment manufacturer. I have been a part of many discussions about hazards vs. perceived risk. Danger does not equal fun. However, we can and should require a child to do something that is at the edge of their comfort zone.  Children benefit from the rush and exhilaration of climbing (almost) fearlessly up an eight-foot-tall climbing web. We can present opportunities for excitement at the playground in a manner that minimizes hazards.

Children who are allowed to experience risk on the playground as most adults in my generation did – tall heights, speed, chance of falling– leverage these challenges to grow progressively more comfortable until they achieve mastery. By allowing children to take risks, we are helping them develop into self-assured and resilient members of society.  Not to mention the fact that the more time a child spends outdoors, the more likely they are to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and develop confidence that comes from physical fitness.

Back at my childhood playground, it was about discovering what I could do and what I couldn’t.  It was about growth, challenging myself, and learning how to interact with the world and understanding my place in it.

Children deserve to be challenged, in school, at home, and most certainly on the playground. The unintended consequences of avoiding challenges will be far more severe than accepting the challenge.Do you think we avoid challenging children for their good, or ours?

 

A Playworld "cocoon" that appeals to all kids, including those with autism who want to get away from over-stimulation,

A Playworld “cocoon” that appeals to all kids, including those with autism who want to escape over-stimulation,

 

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