The Atlantic Magazine's recent cover story "The Over Protected Kid" really got our office talking. The author, Hanna Rosin, discusses the research behind a growing debate over children's risk exposure in the context of play. The story explores the re-birth of adventure playgrounds, a 1940's concept of adult-free, messy, experimentation spaces for kids. Rosin begins by focusing on "the Land" a recently opened adventure playground in North Wales that's full of old mattresses, fire pits, and wood pallets - what most American adults would find slightly crazy.
Rosin reviews the United States' history of playground safety guidelines and lawsuits, and notes the movement toward reducing risk of injury (exemplified by the ever-expanding surface area of the planet now covered with rubber fall surface material.) She cites Dr. Joe Frost, child development scholar, playground safety expert, and, since the 1980's, one of the most outspoken safety advocates. In the 80's, Frost began a hard drive for playground safety guidelines, and has since served as an expert witness on litigation involving playground safety. While instrumental in kicking off public awareness of playground safety, Frost himself worries that such safety concerns may now have gone too far, and at the expense of play.
Opportunities for play which present some degree of risk can help children to develop skills, which in turn builds self-confidence, independence and helps overcome fears. In assessing play spaces for children, designers, educators, parents, those responsible for drafting safety guidelines, and litigators are presented with a continuum of tolerable risk. We must address the trade-offs between risk and reward when we evaluate the appropriateness of playground components. In designed outdoor environments for play, we see today a spectrum, from those featuring factory-produced equipment set in expanses of resilient surfacing to, less commonly, "junkyard" playgrounds, replete with splinters and mud.
With respect to the former, surprising but troubling research indicates that injury statistics for long-bone injuries may be increasing. The current theory to explain this is "risk compensation;" kids are not as worried about falling due to the perceived safety of resilient surfacing, and are being less careful, leading to more injuries.
Factors such as pedagogical goals, level of expected supervision, user age, degree of public or private access, climate, and budgets for construction and maintenance, are just some of the considerations which will inform play space planners as to appropriate levels of risk.
In his article The Dissolution of Children's Outdoor Play: Causes and Consequences, Frost notes that the "litigation and playground safety issue is a two-faced beast;" it protects children from those "who maliciously and knowingly cause damage." Yet an overly litigious environment can lead to reduced, or even non-existent outdoor spaces for play. Frost goes on to state: "the removal of playground equipment frequently results from fear of litigation but also from overzealous, uninformed choices by playground designers and sponsors."
In the Smithsonian article "Kids Don't Need Equipment, They Need Opportunity," Roger Hart, an environmental psychologist, remarks that “Most people who care about child development know nothing about design, and most people who design know nothing about child development." Writing for the University of Texas, Kay Randall, the author of an article entitled Child's Play, notes the historical and continued difficulty of creating consensus between designers, safety specialists and child development experts.
These articles really challenged us. How can we as designers create places to best enhance children's development through play? Are we as designers contributing to uninteresting, un-challenging playground design if we acquiesce to societal forces with zero risk-tolerance? How can we tap in to our desire to create memorable, engaging playgrounds - places which are much more than just collections of purchased plastic? Stay tuned as we continue to explore what "good risk" means to us as designers and to the cultures for whom we design.