'Safe' playgrounds could be stunting emotional development, studies say

Some scientists say that "safe" playgrounds actually make children more anxious and fearful, while other critics dispute the idea that they are even physically safer.
Written by Laura Shin, Contributor on

Jungle gyms have evolved over the years.

Once ten-foot-tall, bare-bones metal contraptions set in bare grass or dirt have given way to colorful, shorter, purportedly safer (and less lawsuit-prone) wonderlands padded underfoot by materials such as rubber or wood chips.

But psychologists are raising concerns about the negative psychological impacts of these "safer" models even as studies about their physical safety benefits remain inconclusive.

Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway told The New York Times:

Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground. I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.

She and other psychologists believe that protective playgrounds have the opposite of their intended effect: instead of making children feel safer, and therefore braver, they actually make them more anxious and fearful.

How children approach playgrounds

Dr. Sandseter studied children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, and identified six types of risky play that they engender: exploring heights, moving at high speed, playing with dangerous tools, being near near dangerous elements such as water or fire, physical play with others (such as wrestling) and getting lost.

When climbing equipment isn't high enough, Dr. Sandseter says it becomes boring for children. When approaching a tall jungle gym, most children will not try to reach the peak on the first try, but over the years, they will work up to it and develop a sense of mastery.

Even if they fall while trying, falls almost never cause permanent emotional or physical damage. The Times writer, John Tierney, says:

While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

Psychological and evolutionary benefits of risky play

The gradual way in which children tackle progressively greater challenges when playing on jungle gyms actually mirrors a technique called habituation that therapists use to coach adults who have phobias, Dr. Sandseter and her fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair of Norwegian University for Science and Technology, argue in the journal Evolutionary Psychology (pdf).

They cite other studies showing that experiencing an injurious fall from height between the ages of five and nine was associated with not fearing heights at age 18.

After analyzing statistics of playground accidents from several countries, they also saw that injuries from children's play such as bruises, fractures and concussions, were generally temporary and rarely caused the kind of trauma that would affect normal development.

It seems counterintuitive to think that a tendency to explore heights would have an evolutionary advantage. After all, if children risk death, they won't be able to pass their genes on.

But, Sandseter and Kennair say, there are evolutionary benefits to doing so because it helps children develop the important skills of conquering fear and forging a sense of mastery. Not letting those develop has its own side effects. The psychologists write:

Paradoxically, ... our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.

Doubts about the physical benefit of 'safe' playgrounds

On top of the possible negative psychological impacts of so-called safe playgrounds, some researchers dispute the idea that they are physically safer.

David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London, tells the New York Times, "There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds." He notes that some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after softer surfaces were introduced on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.

Dr. Ball says this is because the children believe the playground is safe, and that prompts them to take more risks.

What do you think? Do you think that these researchers are overreacting and that "safe" playgrounds are not only physically safe but also developmentally beneficial to children? Or do you think that "safe" playgrounds aren't as safe as they are purported to be and that they are products of a culture of over-parenting and litigiousness?

via: The New York Times

Photo: Wilderdom

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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