Lately we have been reading about playgrounds that are too safe, too boring, not challenging enough and so on. We even see studies that claim boring playgrounds lead to sedentary kids. We hear parents who are concerned about how their children don’t have the opportunity to play on the old monkey bars and how they are missing the thrill of sliding down and moving through the air.
I believe that the playground equipment is not the problem, or even its cause. Part of the problem lies in a decision made years ago – by individuals and institutions who have the well-being of children in mind and can influence legislation – that children fit into two categories when it comes to playgrounds: 2- to 5-year-olds and 5- to 12-year-olds. The establishment of regulations to make playgrounds safe for each age group is one of the main reasons why we have the average ‘safe’ playgrounds all over the country. The result is playgrounds are designed based on the lowest common denominator: age. And, because very few of us are willing to expose ourselves to greater liability by doing something that stretches the guidelines, in many cases we end up with playgrounds that are simply too boring for older users.
I will argue that a ‘safe and boring’ playground (designed for 5- to 12-year-olds) is VERY exciting for five- or six-year-olds. In fact, if you bring those kids to such a playground, you’d think they were in heaven – just try to get them away from it to go home and you’ll see. As for them missing the thrill of sliding and moving through the air, I’d say there are plenty of components that are challenging and engaging and give a young child the sense of risk. Watch them go down a 9-foot slide or try to climb across a non-planar net climber, you’ll see their physical abilities are challenged. They are not always able to make it to the top on the first try; they don’t always come home without bruises or free of anxiety. Still, they’re thrilled, they want to go back to try it again and they’re ready to meet other kids who want to run around like them.
What about the claim that today’s boring playgrounds are actually stunting children’s emotional growth, leaving them with fears and anxieties that are far worse than the cuts and scrapes they’d get falling off the old monkey bars? Well, I say playgrounds are not the only party to blame. A lack of personal interaction, busy parents, inactivity, litigious inclinations, etc., – insert any examples of trends and behaviors that currently influence our society here – are likelier culprits.
The hands of designers, manufacturers and even buyers are tied by the playground guidelines. It is easier to get funding and insurance for a playground that meets all the regulations. But if you want something ‘different and new’, you are likely to assume the risks and liabilities. Are any of us willing to do that?
What if we consider changing the safety requirements to more accurately match children’s abilities and interests at certain ages? What would that look like?
Another factor that I think is affecting the way playgrounds are perceived is accessibility. Right now, accessibility equals access for a wheelchair. This is very important, but with limited funds we end up spending our money in ramps leading to maybe a slide or a couple of uninspiring play panels. What is the result? Playgrounds that are not as enjoyable and challenging. What if we could switch from accessible to inclusive? What if we designed play areas where everyone – regardless of abilities – can play and have a challenge?
The pessimist in me thinks it will take a really long time to change the guidelines to match children’s abilities and expectations. I am also convinced that no new playground that complies with the current guidelines is going to be as exciting for a 12-year-old as it is for a 5-year-old.
So what CAN we do? Maybe we could reconsider how to use what we have. The play components are available. Imagine replacing the standard ‘go up the steps onto a deck and come down a slide’ play unit with a play area for ages 5 to 12 that has three-dimensional climbing net structures, tall climbing boulders, great motion events, ground-based activities, exciting inclusive activities (such as NEOS), and of course, the more traditional climbers, slides and swings. A 6-year-old may not play with all the activities, but they will always have something to ‘grow into,’ and an 11-year-old will be able to find something challenging that they can do with their friends.
What other ways can we design our play areas to make them exciting and challenging for all users?