Feature Article - January 2016
Find a printable version here

Balancing Act

Safety & Risk on the Playground

By Chris Gelbach


Mixing Adventure With Safety

Another trend that is enabling playground owner-operators to provide developmentally appropriate challenges to a broader age range is that of adventure playgrounds. These offerings, however, present an entirely different set of safety and staffing considerations for recreation managers. In fact, those unfamiliar with adventure playgrounds may not have a good sense of what they actually are, or are meant to do.

"Before I became versed in adventure playgrounds and playwork, I had something specific in mind. I thought it meant zip lines and giant climbing walls and big boulders—a grand-scale nature version of a playground. But an adventure playground is actually really different," said Erin Marteal, executive director of Ithaca Children's Garden (ICG). "The defining characteristics of an adventure playground are loose and moveable parts and playwork staff."

ICG has its own version of an adventure playground in its Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone. There, kids can dig for worms, play with water, sand and clay, climb trees, get muddy and dirty, and build and tear down things like forts out of straw.

"Some of the forts and towers and structures and swings are really amazing. It's really incredible to see what kids are developing. There's no upper limit because it's a big giant construction and destruction factory, essentially," Marteal said.

In a world where kids' opportunities for free outdoor play are diminishing, adventure playgrounds give kids the opportunity to create a child-designed space. They can also provide appeal for older kids who have lost interest in the typical 5-to-12 playground. In fact, Ithaca Children's Garden initially designed the Anarchy Zone space for an older elementary and middle school demographic that was less drawn to its other attractions. "And what we found is that not only does the Anarchy Zone appeal to them, it also really appeals to the youngest sector, too," Marteal said.

Marteal argued that research shows that rates and types of injuries are less severe on adventure playgrounds than on conventional ones. What these playgrounds do intentionally provide is a greater sense of risk.

"There is a sense of being able to engage in riskier behavior from a child's perspective," Marteal said. "It's really important, as children move through the various stages of childhood, that they're exploring what their own capabilities are. They really benefit from being able to test different boundaries and test their own skills."

In the age of helicopter parenting, one of the biggest challenges in managing this kind of experience on playgrounds is getting parents to refrain from supervising and directing their children. "The point of the Anarchy Zone is for kids to play and for us to remove our own biases about how they should be playing and what they should be doing," said Marteal.

Adventure playgrounds, nature-based play, challenge courses and innovations in playground equipment each provide their own benefits and challenges when it comes to safety, maintenance and training. But all can provide a valuable experience to kids.

At the same time, the reality for recreation managers is that these facilities also require dedicated and well-trained staff to oversee the proceedings. At the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone, the staff receives training in playwork, which the garden has found incredibly valuable, even though the staff already had child development and early childhood education experience.

"Playwork is really the study and practice of supporting child-directed play, and that's different than being a teacher, an educator, a park manager," Marteal said. "If I had to say what's the one thing I would advise others who are considering starting an adventure playground, it would be to really explore playwork training and equip your key staff with basic training in playwork."

The safety requirements the Anarchy Zone falls under also vary depending on the type of programming being done. It's a public children's garden within a city park, so children and their parents can explore the spaces at any time. But the Anarchy Zone is subject to different regulations for registered programs.

For instance, New York state law prohibits the garden from allowing summer campers to climb trees—even though parents can bring their kids to enjoy the public park and let them climb trees whenever they want. "It's a bit of an anomaly that's pretty archaic and needs to be changed, but that's how it is now," Marteal said.

While the Anarchy Zone does have a shed where certain items like blocks of foam and cardboard can be locked up, that's done more for protection from the elements. But other adventure playgrounds that incorporate a heavier construction focus with hammers, nails and other potentially dangerous materials tend to have a more closed-off approach for safety reasons. In addition to locked sheds, this can include entry only during staffed hours, perimeter fencing and even waivers.

Berkeley Adventure Playground, for instance, requires people to sign a walk-in waiver when they enter the front gate. While the playground is open seven days a week for nine weeks in the summer, its fall hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. In addition to adding to the safety of the space, fencing in this kind of adventure playground can also make the play space more acceptable to the neighboring community.

"Of all the adventure playgrounds that have started around California, the ones that have failed are the ones in people's neighborhoods," said Patty Donald, coordinator for the Berkeley Adventure Playground. "Because people don't like the look of them. They look like junkyards, or hobo villages. So that's one of the reasons to have it fenced in—so neighbors aren't going to mind being next to it."

The activities at the playground are overseen by paid, experienced staff. Many of them were once children who grew up in the playground and realized that it was important to them. "The challenge we have in schools now is that hands-on learning is not happening for a lot of people," said Donald, who believes that such outlets are particularly important for those hands-on learners who have difficulty in lecture-based classes.

"I think that the advantage of adventure playgrounds also is that we keep children longer," Donald said. "We have teenagers who will come in and build, whereas most teenagers won't be caught dead in a playground unless it's after 9 p.m. At the adventure playground, they think they're playing. But they're really learning life skills."

Adventure playgrounds, nature-based play, challenge courses and innovations in playground equipment each provide their own benefits and challenges when it comes to safety, maintenance and training. But all can provide a valuable experience to kids. And, when done properly, all can do it without an unacceptable level of risk for young patrons or the facilities that serve them.