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,


27 Responses to A Playground Plea

  1. Kelly wilson September 23, 2013 at 11:14 pm #

    Yes bring back the merry go round! Teach my child about inertia. Also I don’t see hanging rings in playgrounds anymore- uneven metal bars to hang from, or even tether ball!
    It’s ridiculous! I’m a very proud unsafe mother who encourages her children to explore heights and speeds.

  2. Wendy September 23, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

    “Danger does not equal fun.” True, however a sense of potential danger, from a child’s point of view, very often DOES equal fun. Most modern playgrounds are so safe they are downright boring! The most fun to be had on many of them is a rousing game of tag through the mild “obstacles” and many schools outlaw even that.

  3. hineata September 23, 2013 at 11:20 pm #

    Oh yes, yes, yes! Want to cry when I see the dumbing down of some of our playgrounds, especially the council ones. I have seen playgrounds for toddlers at kindergartens in Malaysia where the slide is over solid concrete, so yeah, a bit of padding isn’t always a bad idea. But we had a marvellous playground outside our city library for years, complete with merry-go-round, 16 foot slide (which my 2 year old at the time loved to challenge herself on – I just closed my eyes, LOL!) and tractor, among other delights. Then a few years ago the council got all PC, ripped out the challenges and put in ‘safe’ equipment’ and now the only kids who have any fun on the thing would be under twos and physically challenged under fives. Same with many of the other council playgrounds. These days for kids to have any fun at all they have to go to school playgrounds, which fortunately are still pretty challenging. Grrrr….Why do I pay rates?

  4. Jenny Islander September 24, 2013 at 1:09 am #

    Wow, we have a steel merry-go-round, a rock climbing wall with a cave on the other side and a place on top where it’s possible to walk right off the edge and break a limb, a scary rope-and-plank bridge (made of plastic boards and chains, but still), I’m not sure how many vertical, horizontal, and even curved sets of bars designed for monkeying around, and two sets of swings with no plastic tubes over the chains–all in one playground. They also have a set of things they never had when I was a kid, where you climb up to a platform, grab two handholds on a kind of torpedo shaped thing, push off with your feet, and slide along a horizontal bar with your feet well off the ground, and you have to let go and fall to the sawdust to get off. Nearby there is a school playground where you get to the playground by walking out of the school’s back door and sliding down a 16-food slide to the gravel! (Or you can take the stairs.)

    I sure hope the creeping tide doesn’t reach here.

  5. Lynnie September 24, 2013 at 1:48 am #

    About a year and a half ago, they totally tore down and rebuilt the community playground in my town. One of the things they did was make a 2 to 5 year old section of the playground. My son was barely over 2 when the playground reopened and guess what. Even then he got bored with the toddler part of the playground like the majority of the toddlers and preschoolers that play there.
    My son is now 3 and has already mastered the 5 to 12 year old section of the playground. There is a playground at a church in my town that has the tall swings, the tall metal slide, and even a merry go round. Of course, the tall metal slide kinda freaked out my son, but after the first time he went up it, he had a blast. He even liked the merry go round, even though I didn’t spin it fast enough to be a danger. I have fond memories of holding on to dear life on a merry go round spinning at the speed of light.

  6. Donna September 24, 2013 at 8:09 am #

    hineata – But you have zip lines in your playgrounds! Maya LOVED those when we went on the grand tour of New Zealand playgrounds. They propelled her to do the 50 foot high zip line at the San Diego fair this summer and spurred the desire to go on canopy tours (thanks for that from the mother who is not a huge fan of heights).

  7. Silver Fang September 24, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    I loved merry-go-rounds as a kid and hated that they were removed.

  8. Stephanie September 24, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    When we were visiting family in Massachusetts a number of years ago, we went to a playground that had a climbing area made of a complex web of high-tension cords. (It was 3-dimentional, making it roughly equivalent to a jungle gym.) My high-climbing son, who was 4 at the time, LOVED it! He could do all kinds of combinations of climbing, going over and under, jumping across space, and even resting in the cords as if in a hammock. I loved it too. I could sit on the bench and relax because any loss of grip or balance on his part would cause him to fall only about a foot before he got caught in the web of chords. Super fun AND safe — it can be done. I have since seen some use of tension-chords on playgrounds near my home, but nothing nearly as cool as the one in Boston.

  9. Melanie Jones September 24, 2013 at 9:02 am #

    I am on the board for our neighborhood HOA. We have the same type of equipment I grew up on – the only difference is this equipment hasn’t been updated or improved in 30 years. We’re looking at replacing the equipment and I really like the Playworld stuff. Some of their equipment is actually ‘scarier’ than things I grew up with, while still being safer. Twirling pods and seats sling you around much faster than a merry go round to the point of inducing true tears of fear, and yet if you fall underneath one there is no real risk of being drug to death or anything. You could probably break an arm or something if you tried hard enough, but it would take effort. I will never miss metal slides in the hot sun, but I do miss the really tall ones/really long silly ones going down a big hill. However, if you look at a Playworld catalog you see that tall plastic slides are still available, I just think people buy them less now. The amazing thing I learned from the Playworld rep was how much of a ‘science’ play can be. Maybe it is just a sales point, but he pointed out all the different types of play that are ideal for a 5-12 playground, and then types of equipment that made that possible. As I thought about our most and least favorite playgrounds in town I could really see the difference between playgrounds that have a diversity of play experiences and those that really skimped on a certain area and left some kids out.

  10. Farrar September 24, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    I have seen increasing misuse of the equipment as a result of the safety trend. My kids climb atop the equipment at our corner park, which is definitely not intended.

    But I also just have to comment about the cocoon swing, since it’s pictured. I love that there is more thought about differently abled kids on the playground and we live close enough to visit a huge park designed with wheelchair use in mind, which is fun for all kids. But the trend also seems to be toward individual play experiences such as that one. These are play equipment pieces that are intended to be used by one or possibly two children at most, but never by a large group. I have recently seen new playgrounds where more than half the equipment is these individual use pieces. I would argue these are also making the playground less fun overall when they really dominate the landscape. They’re things kids argue over and have to stand around waiting for instead of playing. They’re not things that encourage co-operation (like merry-go-rounds!), but rather competition. They don’t encourage group use of the playground. They’re also things that kids get really initially excited about but then tend to be more bored by on subsequent playground visits. So I say bring back the elements of danger and cooperation.

  11. M.H. September 24, 2013 at 9:12 am #

    I have two boys who are 4 and 5.5 years old. I don’t take them to the playground all that often. The reason is because they get bored there quickly. My 4 year old has already mastered pretty much all of the equipment though he does still get some benefit from it. My 5 year old begs me to go over to the huge hill next to the play ground so that he can run or roll down it. They will then both drag me into the woods away from the play ground so that they can climb trees and stomp in mud. Please note that we do regularly go for walks in the woods, even if we don’t go to the play ground itself all that often.

  12. Janice Stoffel September 24, 2013 at 9:34 am #

    Yes, yes, yes! I love playgrounds that allow my son to push and tests his limits of physical prowess. When we were visiting Vancouver, BC we came across a playground that I don’t think I would ever see in the States….they had suspended rings they had to climb through and a slide that had no sides! It was awesome! Yes, the kids can fall and they can get hurt, and while I would not want my son (or anyone else’s child) to get hurt, there is a lesson to be learned by falling. Playgrounds like these teach kids the world is exciting and dangerous and if you don’t develop your wits you will get hurt. I would rather the lesson be learned on a mulch covered playground than off a 100 foot cliff.

  13. sara September 24, 2013 at 9:36 am #

    My 2.5 year old has mastered all the equipment at our local playground. You should see the look on other parent’s faces when I’m sitting on the bench and he’s climbing across bars between two sections of the playground. I’ve only seen him fall when an adult is there beside him to make sure he doesn’t fall.

  14. Stephanie September 24, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    Interesting insight, Melanie Jones. Thanks!

  15. QuicoT September 24, 2013 at 10:13 am #

    I don’t envy playground designers’ task, it seems impossible: design equipment that’s both safe and fun for kids aged 2-10! How is that even possible?

    Here in Montreal we have very safe playgrounds that our 2 year old simply loves. I can’t help but notice that the 5-7 year olds around seem to get bored very quickly.

    Other than strict age segregation (how? you’d need to post a guard!) I don’t see how you square this circle…

  16. Warren September 24, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    Bumps, bruises, scrapes, gravel rash, pulled muscles, and minor sprains were all indicators of having a fun day, when I was a kid. We would come in with a blood stain on our knees, get asked what happened, and we would answer with “I dunno`
    Now you see commercials for pocket sized antiseptic sprays, that moms whip out as soon as a kid says ow.

    Yes there was the rare severe injury like a break, a cut needing stitches, or a concussion. They were not the end of the world, and no one died. Do I want my kid to break an arm….no. Is it a life altering experience…….yes only in the fact they will learn from it. Learn their limitations, learn how to live one handed for awhile and learn how to overcome, and get right back out there.

    Today is more about how an arm in a cast is a major inconvenience for the parent than anything.

  17. Dave September 24, 2013 at 10:21 am #

    My son lived in Canada for a few years. When I went to visit him I got to play with my grandchildren on old school equipment: the merry-go-round, high swings, this thing that hum and spun around, and a group of rings on a chain that you ran and when you got fast enough you jumped up and spun around a pool. It was so much fun for them and me. A bit scary at times but that was part of the fun. There was no rubber mats under the toys just dirt. Back in the states we have lower slides and rubber everywhere, Not that we don’t have fun there is just less of a thrill.

  18. Warren September 24, 2013 at 10:24 am #

    On another note, my daughters and the other kids used to love the huge old fort style playground. They would take our German Sheperd and have her run through everything, climb everything, jump the swings like it was some big obstacle course. It is funny watching a dog sit quietly in line waiting her turn to go down the slide.

  19. Quincy Bruckerhoff September 24, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    Not quite in the same vein, but this is in the news today.


  20. Wendy September 24, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    A few years ago when we were camping with friends, I took all our boys, ages 10-13, for a hike to find a Geocache. Our GPS took us to the public playground in a neighboring very small town. I was tickled to see that it had never been updated. It contained a real merry-go-round, a monkey-bars built like a jail cell that had a closing gate (OMG, a child might get trapped inside!) and structures that were designed to be climbed up and over, about 10feet up. The ground was basic dirt and grass. The boys all had a blast! We were there for almost an hour, and they didn’t want to leave.

    On another note- what do you think about the trend to put “safety” materials under backyard jungle gyms? To me, the barriers used to contain the wood chips seem to be a bigger threat than the ground itself. I see them as a tripping hazard when the kids are running around. They always seem to be barely big enough to contain the equipment, putting them right where kids would be guaranteed to land on them when jumping or falling off structure.

  21. nina September 24, 2013 at 11:40 am #

    There is a lot to be said about challenging fun playgrounds. A few weeks ago we went to explore a new (to us) park with a family of friends. Between our 2 families we had 6 children ages 3 to 12. After an hour or so of wandering along wooden trails we satled at a picnic table to have lunch. Our kids immediately noticed some strange bright colored structures at a distance and went to investigate. For about half an hour we were enjoying adult conversation but then my husband decided to go see what they were up to. When he didn’t come back in 15 min my girlfriend’s husband went to see what was the hold up. And then he didn’t come back. After a while my girlfriend and I got curious where our family members disappeared to so we went to find them. In about 5 minutes we came upon a sight we haven’t seen in a while or maybe ever. My husband was half way up an inverted climbing wall with my oldest son giving him pointers. Both of the 3 year olds were almost all the way up a spider web looking contraption. 6 and 9 yearolds were trying to figure out how to use an unusual swing where you supposed to do a 360 around a pole at a 45 angle, while my 10 year old (who prides himself on his superb climbing skills) was looking down at it all from the tallest structure of the playground possibly 16 ft high up. My girlfriend’s husband was so busy snapping pictures that he only noticed us when we wandered into the frame. So I don’t loose out on fun kids made me to revisit my youth and show them that I still got it and climb up the fire pole. Though I have to admit that I refused to go down the slide, it looked too steep and scary. When it was time to go home my 12 year old agreed that he had fun, my 10 year old declared that it was the best playground ever, and my 3 year old asked if we could come back when she’s bigger because she was too small now to do everything she wanted.

  22. Rob September 24, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    When I was a kid in the 70’s, I had a playground in my home town that had all kinds of great things to play on. There was a jungle gym that seemed like it was 50 feet tall (was probably more like 15), some regular swings, tall swings, double swings, bench swings, and swings that were painted to look like horses. There were three metal slides – and short one, a tall one and a really tall one that had a hump in it half way down. There was a merry-go-round, two huge tires half buried in the ground that you could climb over or into, and a carousel. We would go there in the morning and we knew it was time to head home for lunch when the noon whistle blew at the fire station right next to the park. We’d go home and eat, and go right back for more.

    There was also a pool. It was a kiddie pool that only went to 2 feet deep, but even as we got too big for it we’d go in once in a while to cool off. Swim suits weren’t required, so we’d go in fully clothed (sans shoes) and then play on the playground until we dried off.

    About 10 years or so ago I was in my home town for a family reunion and I drove by the park. EVERYTHING was gone except for the carousel. All of the swings, slides, jungle gym, tires and pool were gone. In their place was a single, toddler-sized playscape with a small, plastic slide. The pool had been removed and the area was filled in with sand. A giant sandbox. They had added a couple of benches, but mostly the park was just a bunch of wide open space with this tiny playscape in the middle of it.

    Feeling sad, I walked through the park to the carousel and took a ride. That’s when I discovered that those stupid belt loops had been added to all of the horses and that I was required to wear one in order to ride. I rode, and then left the park, depressed. I don’t even know how a kid could have fun there now. In fact, I’ll be there aren’t any kids having fun there now because even though I was there in the middle of the day during the summer, the place was practically deserted.

    I understand that playground equipment gets old and has to be replaced. But why it can’t be replaced with equally fun stuff is beyond me.

  23. Cin September 24, 2013 at 11:59 am #

    You all would adore the playground at my kids’ school. There’s so many neat and challenging pieces of equipment, including a “snake” that you can stand on and make wobble in huge arcs (and of course fall off), and a “spider web” that is as tall as the school. The kids accidentally broke the web last year — too many children on the structure at once. It was awesome. They now have a “one kid per web strand” policy.

  24. Donna September 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    We have a little park (part of a large hospital) near our house that has several sculptures of children doing stuff that children have been known to do – see saw, read a book while sitting in a tree, walk on a log, carry a big basket that requires 2 kids. Nothing extraordinary or daring.

    Today someone posted a question on our neighborhood association listserve asking for the location of a specific building at the hospital and received this response (and not from me):

    “From Talmadge, it’s the one that borders the park with all the statues of children doing fun stuff that kids are no longer allowed to do in parks.”

    It isn’t just us.

  25. Kimberly September 24, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

    We have old 1960’s tall old metal swings on my campus. I’ve taught some of my 2nd graders to swing. Kids on spectrum often seem to love the sensation of swinging.

    Sometimes fun equipment has to be taken out because it is unsafe. We had a “spinner” on our campus. Last year the teachers asked repeatedly for it to be removed. Years of the kids feet dragging around the base dug the base out of the ground. Nothing maintenance did fixed the problem. Part of the problem was also the fact we had a drought which cracked the ground severely. (I had a student step into one of the cracks – she went down into the ground up to her hip. We had to dig her out because her shoe got stuck in the whole.

  26. Melissa September 24, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    Great post. My kids hate going to the local playgrounds – they are now 9 & 11 and all the equipment is too small for them. If there were some more interesting things for them to play on, it would go a long way to getting outside and active, especially my 9 year old who doesn’t like sport.

  27. Alecta September 25, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Autistic adult here – I want one of those cocoons!