Safety vs. Risk on the Playground

If you're over the age of 30, you most likely remember a childhood filled with hours and hours of unsupervised play. Days where you ran out of the house after breakfast to meet your friends and didn't come home until dinner. Days spent on bikes and in trees and on streets and in nature. Many of these days were inevitably spent with friends on playgrounds, challenging and daring each other on the equipment and finding new and sometimes risky ways to play.


Those playgrounds of yesterday now seem like giant obstacle courses compared with what children play on in 2016. Today's playgrounds, in an effort to decrease injury, are shorter, homogenized and covered in rubber surfaces. While it's important to ensure kids are safe on the playground, some play experts are concerned we've gone too far and removed all the risk.

"Children need to take risks, and if we dumb playgrounds down too much in an effort to make them safer we are actually doing the opposite," said Teri Hendy, president of Site Masters Inc. "We are actually making them more unsafe because children are always going to challenge themselves. So if it isn't challenging enough as designed, kids will find ways to challenge themselves and play on the equipment in ways not intended by the manufacturer."

This is really the crux of the issue: How do you balance risk-taking, which has been proven to be an essential part of childhood development, with safety? Can you make a playground truly safe?

"It just isn't possible," said Hendy, who has more than 20 years of experience consulting school and park districts on playground safety and design. "We can eliminate known hazards and leading causes of injury, but even in the safest of environments a child can still fall down and get hurt. Think of chair. A chair is perfectly safe to sit on, but if you stand on it or climb on back it may tip over and hurt you. This doesn't mean the chair is unsafe or defective. It is the behavior that created the risk."

When asked how to ensure the right mix of risk and safety in future designs, Hendy said, "Until we have tort reform, we're going to be completely focused on standards, but remember, even in compliant environments people get injured."

Hendy went on to say that it is also important that, "as a society we need recognize kids will try things and fail, and just because they get injured doesn't mean someone did something wrong or deserves to be sued. There are certainly situations where legal action is required, but overall we need to take more responsibility for our own actions."

Removing all risk from a playground only ensures that children will misuse the equipment as they will certainly still challenge themselves. So why not design an environment that encourages the right kind of risk-taking? Proponents of this type of design often talk about "beneficial risk," which essentially says that it is important for children to take risks, but the benefit of the risk to a child's development must be greater than the hazard they are exposed to.

"Children need to learn to deal with risk and recognize their own physical limits. In a well-designed environment, they're able to do that," Hendy said.