The Science of Playgrounds: are we sacrificing Fun for Safety?

Like most parents, I love watching my kids play. But seeing my son on his school playground breaks my heart a bit. There are two simple, prefab play sets, each with a slide, a set of stairs, and a ladder. The kids aren’t allowed to run, after too many instances of falling and colliding with each other. They can play ball, but they can’t kick the balls up in the air because sometimes they go over the fence. It’s hot and there’s no shade. The little ones roam around from place to place looking bored, like they’ve been let out for daily yard time.

Playgrounds are standardized and made to be safe, but the result is that many are so uninspiring that kids don’t play hard enough on them to get a mental and physical workout. That’s why designers, landscape architects, and child development experts are transforming community and school play spaces and breaking the mold on the “McDonald’s style” play structures. After watching these fresh ideas in action, it’s hard to see the old-school playground the same way.

The shape of traditional playgrounds came about because of heavy safety guidelines starting in the 1980s, which were prompted by lawsuits over kids getting injured on play structures. As Hanna Rosin wrote recently in The Atlantic, to minimize risk, playgrounds have converted over the years to specified heights, slopes, and angles, with standard materials like rubber flooring that are deemed safe. Playground supply companies shuttle equipment around the country, so a playground in our Southern California neighborhood might look almost identical to the ones my son sees in my New York hometown or his grandparents’ Houston suburb.

In contrast, when I ask my son about the play yard from his preschool days, his eyes light up and he talks excitedly for 20 minutes. It’s a magical place, with mostly natural elements instead of playground equipment. There’s a garden, a biking area, and a dirt hill under trees where kids can run water and dig to make rivers. There’s a big sand area, again with a spout for the kids to make more waterways. Every afternoon last year, I’d find my son engrossed in a dirt- or sand-based project, shoveling and transporting materials while the kids all planned and shouted directions. He was wet, coated in sand, and happy.

“When I was young we could still climb trees,” says the campus director, Anita de la Puente. “We ran through fields and skinned our knees. We played outside on rainy days … unfortunately we’re now overlooking this for ‘safety’ and what is bright and plastic.” The preschool’s yard takes inspiration from Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, where there is no manmade play equipment to climb on, just the trees, rocks, and grass already there. Last year, when my son was in his final year of preschool, they took out the slide structure and put in a series of boulders (that look and feel real, but are artificial) for climbing. All this made a big impression on my son, who’s just waiting to get his hands on that yard again when his little sister starts preschool next year. “There was so much to do on that yard,” he tells me. “There’s nothing to do on the playground at my school now.”

My son’s assessment is echoed by studies of playground design. Kids have been shown to be highly sedentary on traditional playgrounds, just like I saw at his elementary school. One study found little activity during recess, with over 20 percent of kids fully sedentary (more than one-third were also overweight or obese). The activity rates went up significantly when kids were given ball hoppers and markings on the concrete from which they could make games. A landscape architecture study of 16 outdoor play centers in British Columbia found that the majority of play equipment was not used at all, and more than half of the teachers said the equipment wasn’t challenging enough.

When researchers compare traditional playgrounds to more natural ones, the latter wins out. Researchers at the University of Tennessee monitored kids’ play and activity levels on the traditional metal and plastic playground, measuring things such as how often they used the slides, the intensity of their activity, and how much time they spent in the shade. Over the course of months, the playground was transformed; the slides were built into a hill with trees, a small creek, rocks, flowers, logs, and tree stumps. Activity levels went up, and kids did more imaginary play. Moreover, the time kids spent playing doubled, and they engaged in more strengthening and aerobic exercise.

Of course, transforming a playground takes money (unless you go with the simple tree stumps and dirt idea). It took our preschool years of fundraising to see its vision of a natural play yard take shape; for public schools that are already tight on funding, that may not be realistic. In our area, some public elementary schools have started with smaller steps by leveling school spaces previously occupied by bungalows and putting in gardens.

Given the choice, I take my kids to the grassy hill in our neighborhood and watch them roll, pick flowers, run, or try to climb a tree. On playgrounds, the agenda is set: you run up the stairs, cross the bridge, and go down the slide; there’s not much incentive for new games or creative thought. These motor skills are challenging for my two-year-old, but not for my six-year-old and his friends, who have taken to climbing on parts of the structures not meant for climbing (like the tops of the tunnels) in order to make things interesting. We also have new and inventive playgrounds in our neighborhood, like the ones springing up around the country, that have slides built into hills, loose parts, and play structures broken up by grass and trees.

Play equipment can be really amazing; my kids would swing for hours, and I love to see them scale little climbing walls and make “ice cream stands” from the windowed wood structures on the playground. But playing outside, just like playing inside, doesn’t have to be fancy at all to be satisfying. I think about friends with unfinished backyards that are mostly dirt and realize that if you were to give them a trickle of water, a few logs, and some shovels, the world would fall away and my kids would play happily for hours.

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