Common Sense Risk for Kids

  The Atlantic (atlantic.com, by Hanna Rosin, March 19, 2014) published an article called The Overprotected Kid, decrying the loss of creativity on playgrounds and suggesting that society has gone too far in creating 'risk-free' environments for our children. I read the article with particular personal interest because I designed playgrounds as part of Grounds For Play, Inc. for 22 years, and the expert they quoted in the article, Dr. Joe Frost, was my mentor in the study of children's play. I was a parent in the 70's and 80's and I certainly felt the same paranoia discussed in the article. The article bemoaned the drastic changes that began in the mid-1970's, changes sparked by new (1977) information about the number and seriousness of injuries occurring on playgrounds. Joe and I, along with dozens of other concerned professionals, sought and created new national safety standards. These standards led to the creation of safer equipment, and one unintended consequence was less creative play environments, especially at public schools and parks. Having watched this process from the inside, I agree that far too much creativity was lost--but not because of safer standards. It was due to the over-application of these standards and a lack of understanding of a child's need for 'perceived risk.' I would call it a lack of common sense. Joe, along with myself and another of Joe's protégés, Dr. Eric Strickland, advocated play environments high in perceived risk—what the child perceived as risky—but with common sense safeguards in place. Our approach resulted in stimulating environments where children wanted to play, but where actual risk was low.

The Atlantic article idealizes 'adventure playgrounds,' where kids play with very little adult supervision, and in junky play environments reminiscent of the play many of us enjoyed on open lots or in the woods. Sure, the idea of kids using found materials – crates, tires, mattresses, and cardboard—to build their own play empires has great appeal. It appeals to my nostalgic side. But I and other playground experts reviewed the case files of children killed or seriously injured on unsafe playgrounds. In the majority of injury cases, lack of supervision played a part. So no, I'm not an advocate for less supervision on playgrounds. And as a builder of children's environments, I did everything in my power to avoid the need to face a parent of an injured child. The penalty for unsafe play environments involves injury to some parent's precious child, and that's just too steep a price.

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What was missing from the Atlantic writer's account was a discussion of the common sense response to any new information. I responded, as did most parents of the 70's, 80's, and 90's, to the information I received back the