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Building a Safer Playground: Using Playground Design to Minimize Bullying


01-headerBullying is a serious problem in classrooms, in schools, on playgrounds and in other environments. This long-reaching issue can affect children’s self-esteem, social skills and more. Often it goes undetected, and in recent years it has made headlines as children have suffered serious violence and trauma due to aggression and teasing. Bullying is an escalating problem and is a key issue for anyone designing a playground.

How can we help reduce bullying frequency at recess and on the playground? Most people don’t consider design in prevention programs, but good design as well as good resources can help discourage playground aggression. Using every tool in our arsenal can help ensure children have a fun, safe and joyous childhood, free of violence and the trauma name-calling can cause.

Playground Bullying Statistics

Not all parents realize just how much of a problem bullying can be on playgrounds. However, the statistics paint a rather grim picture:

  • 47 percent of third-grade students have been bullied, with incidents starting as early as kindergarten.
  • 20 percent of students in grades 9-12 and 28 percent of students in grades 6-12 reported having been bullied, according to nobullying.com.
  • 70.6 percent of students have seen aggression happen, and 30 percent have admitted to bullying others.

The vast majority of children, then, will see someone harassed, and almost half will experience bullying themselves. It doesn’t have to be this prevalent.

What Is Bullying?

Quite simply, when we talk about this subject, we’re speaking of harassment, aggression and other negative behaviors which target specific children. Common forms include:

  • Name-calling
  • Rumor spreading
  • Threats
  • Physical aggression
  • Theft
  • Exclusion
  • Isolation

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Bullying can take many forms. It can mean children are isolated because falsehoods are spread about them. It can mean they are teased or called disparaging names. It can mean their lunch money or possessions are stolen or damaged, or they are prevented from playing with others. In extreme cases, it can escalate to pushing, shoving and even assault. There have been instances where children have been killed or permanently injured by peers, so it is a crucial problem to address.

Unfortunately, aggression among children can escalate. What can begin as name-calling or teasing on the playground eventually becomes pushing and even physical harm. In many cases, this type of situation can be extremely isolating, whether or not isolation is a tactic used by perpetrators specifically. Feeling as though they don’t belong and being told they cannot play with other children can make it harder for children to develop strong friendships and the social skills they need. It can also make them feel alone, helpless and hopeless.

03-bullying-impactBullying has serious and negative effects on both perpetrators and survivors, and many people are surprised to find out just how widespread the long-term effects can be. Those who are targeted may suffer from anxiety, school avoidance, loneliness and other issues. They may want to avoid school because they fear their aggressors, and this can lead to worsening grades and school performance.

The stress and anxiety can also lead to school avoidance and lower grades, which can have a long-term impact on career prospects. Feelings of loneliness and anxiety can even produce depression and physical symptoms, such as stomachaches and headaches. Of course, physical confrontation can lead to fractures, bruising and other physical harm.

The Short- and Long-Term Effects

Bullying can have a severe impact on mental health, social well-being and sense of self. People who have been targeted may not understand why they have been chosen as a target and may question what they have done wrong. They may feel “not as good” or may assume certain characteristics make them unlovable or unlikable. They may suffer from poor self-esteem.

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In some cases, these feelings can persist even after the incidents stop, which is one reason simply moving to a new school or neighborhood may not help. Even as adults, individuals may remember and keenly feel the pain they experienced as children who were singled out by others. Worse, these incidents can impact life prospects. Someone who feels less confidence or is depressed due to childhood trauma may not live up to their full potential.

05-name-callingThey may be more timid about reaching out to others or pursuing accomplishments because they have been put down or teased so often. This can become a vicious cycle, where students underperform and achieve less because they try less, getting fewer good results.

Children who witness bullying experience trauma, too:

  • They may fear they will be targeted next or feel pressure or anxiety about the aggressor’s next target.
  • They may feel severely pressured not to tell adults or may feel trapped between wanting to alert adults and not wanting to get in trouble with perpetrators.
  • They may feel guilty as a result of not coming forward soon enough or not doing enough to help.
  • Some children who witness name-calling or even aggressive incidents may join in because they’re afraid of being targeted and then end up feeling guilty or upset at their own behavior.

The Impact on Bullies

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Bullies themselves, too, suffer. Perpetrators may have anger management problems, poor social skills or other issues. Because they aren’t using better options for controlling anger or poor social skills, they may fail to develop the skills they need to succeed in life.

They are also more likely to continue violence as they grow older, with aggression sometimes escalating. The escalating violence can eventually land them in trouble with the law or cause them to get expelled, affecting their chances when it comes to college and careers.

What Does Playground Design Have to Do With Bullying?

Much has been written about the causes of childhood name-calling and there is much debate about the best ways to try to encourage better behavior. It certainly a topic many parents think about and talk about. In these discussions, playground design is not often listed as a major consideration. However, it should be.

When most parents think about keeping children safe, they think about better supervision or awareness campaigns, or they consider addressing the complex social issues that cause teasing, isolation, name-calling and aggression. Certainly it’s true that developing social skills early or addressing issues of socioeconomic inequalities and other complex problems could help with bullying. However, playground design is an accessible and readily available tool that can help reduce instances of conflict for a number of reasons.

Promoting Inclusivity and Safety

Inclusive and safe environments are an important way to address the issue, according to stopbullying.com, a resource developed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Identifying a High-Risk Area

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Playgrounds are considered one of the higher-risk areas for conflict between children. By addressing playground design, schools and communities may see overall rates of aggression between children reduced.

Targeting this specific area can also translate to less aggression elsewhere. If children get along on the playground, this may result in more cooperation and friendliness in the classroom as well.

Emphasizing Togetherness

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Playgrounds provide a unique opportunity to bring children together. All children like to play, and this can be a great equalizer. In the classroom, children may see differences based on school performance, age and other measures because classrooms tend to quantify childhood performance.

Playgrounds are a unique space because they bring together children who may not be together in the classroom. Because of this, playgrounds can be a place for children to find common ground. Most children spend time together at recess, and creating a space where children can play together amicably during breaks can mean more cooperation even after recess is over.

09-eliminating-differencesEliminating Differences

Playgrounds can emphasize differences, and perceived differences are cited as one of the most common causes of conflict, according to nobullying.com. Children who cannot use a piece of playground equipment, for example, may be teased or called names. A playground designed for older children may emphasize age differences.

By creating a more inclusive playground, eliminating these differences can help children play together and get to know each other. This can help bridge some of the gaps that cause isolation, name-calling and other negative behaviors.

Improving Supervision

Only 20 to 30 percent of students who are targeted report the incidents, again according to nobullying.com, so creating spaces where unsocial behavior can’t be hidden are important to disrupt the cycle. Playground design that emphasizes open spaces can make supervision easier. Bullies can’t hide their actions as readily in an open playground concept where caregivers can easily spot children.

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Since the vast majority of bullying incidents are not reported, discouraging incidents needs to be an area of focus. A well-designed space also means adults are more likely to be the ones who spot bullying. This is important since it can help eliminate the upset and fear child bystanders may feel when they see bullying happen, but don’t have the skills to prevent or stop it. Good playground design takes the responsibility of addressing bullying from children and puts it on adults.

Encouraging New Friendships

Playgrounds can be spaces where children who have been targeted before feel safe and included, which is important for kids trying to move past previous encounters with aggressors.

For children who are targeted in the classroom, an inclusive playground can provide a place where they feel safe and where they can build friendships with other students. This can be crucial in rebuilding trust and confidence.

Cultivating Better Social Skills

Playgrounds are where many students learn social skills and conflict resolution, so playgrounds designed to create inclusive and productive play can teach good social skills.

If children can learn to cooperate through effective playground design, they may develop better ways for dealing with others, as well as with conflicts and anger. This can help perpetrators avoid the very factors that lead them to target others.

What Playground Design Features Can Help Reduce Risk of Bullying?

Since playground design can be an important way to lessen bullying, how exactly can we implement design features to help address this problem? There are many options:

1. Ensure Clear Visibility for Good Supervision

An open concept with good visibility means there are fewer places where bullies can hide and perpetrate violence. Good visibility creates a safer environment for everyone. One way to make a playground safer for all children is to create many places for caregivers and supervisors. Make these spaces comfortable, with a good view of the entire playground.

Benches and other seating areas close to wider walkways designed to be accessible for wheelchairs ensure caregivers can rest comfortably. Shaded areas over benches and seating areas can encourage caregivers and supervisory staff to keep an eye on children. Keeping benches and areas close to wider and wheelchair-accessible paths guarantees supervisors and caregivers can assist children who need a little extra help.

2. Offer the Right Playground Features for Everyone

Gender- and age-appropriate play equipment can ensure everyone feels included. When children aren’t excluded because of their age or gender, it becomes easier for them to play together as a group, which allows them to get to get to know each other and can help reduce bullying based on perceived differences.

3. Choose Playground Equipment Designed to Encourage Non-Aggressive Play

Playground equipment designed to encourage peaceful and nonaggressive play is an important part of good playground design. ‘Round The Bend platforms from Playworld, for example, are uneven platforms designed to encourage children to run around and work on their balance, but they don’t encourage wargames or games based on aggression.

OriginsTM Boulders encourage climbing and other activities without aggression. When looking at playground equipment, consider whether the equipment would encourage any type of violent or aggressive play. Pieces encouraging war or other aggressive maneuvers could potentially encourage rougher play, which can escalate.

4. Look for Playground Equipment Designed to Encourage Cooperative Play

Look for playground equipment that encourages children to play together. For example:

  • The Picnic Boulder from Playworld encourages children to sit together and talk easily around a table. There’s also a place for children with wheelchairs to pull up.
  • The Storefront Panel encourages children to play together, with one person selling and another person acting as a store customer.

Cooperative play ensures children get a chance to socialize and to work together, which can help build bridges, even across differences, reducing the risk of conflict and helping to build friendships. When children pretend play with a storefront, for example, they need to cooperate, agree on rules and work together. This can help build social skills and friendships more than pieces of equipment designed for individual play.

5. Design Playground Equipment to Encourage Structured Play

Classic playground equipment such as slides and swings can be a lot of fun. However, equipment designed to offer structured play can make it easier for children still developing their social skills to learn to play with others without stifling their creativity. For example:

  • The Rhythm Wall from Playworld lets children make sounds together or alone using drum, chime, bell and horn panels. Children can be encouraged in their creativity by creating different sounds or rhythms, but it is pretty clear what they can do with the panels.
  • The Tic-Tac-Toe Panel and other games from Playworld require children to agree on the rules and play together. This type of structured play can be encouraging for children who are developing social skills.

It becomes easier for children to understand how to interact with the playground equipment and with each other when using structured play.

6. Use Playground Design to Eliminate Unsupervised Areas

Playground design that allows caregivers to see every piece of equipment and reduces low-visibility areas can make it easier to ensure proper supervision. This makes it harder to hide problems on the playground and encourages children to act their best because they know aggression will be seen.

A playground design that has multiple levels for play but which offers caregivers seats and benches at a higher level is ideal. It allows caregivers to look down on the playground, which can be useful. Another option is to have the entire playground surrounded by inclusive and wide walkways, allowing caregivers to walk around in groups and supervise the entire area at all times.

7. Engage All Senses With Playground Activities

Playground equipment can include:

  • Tactile playground equipment
  • Auditory playground equipment
  • Nature play areas
  • Visual playground equipment

Engaging all senses keeps children more interested, and this can help reduce aggression caused by boredom. Including playground equipment appealing to all senses is more stimulating and inclusive. Children don’t feel bored, because even if they don’t like visual playground equipment, they may enjoy nature or tactile areas. More engaging equipment means children spend their time playing, and this can encourage potential perpetrators to play instead of targeting other children out of boredom or frustration.

8. Understand Why Problems Happen When Developing a Playground

Understanding why conflict happens can help you create a design that can help stop bullying at recess. A bully at school may want to become popular by exerting power over a student seen as “different” or “weak.” By including inclusive activities that encourage children to excel at their own levels, you can help children avoid being seen as weak or different.

They can continue to play, helping to create more similarities than differences. By creating inclusive playground equipment, you are also providing a space where every child can succeed, meaning bullies with poor social skills don’t have to rely on aggression to feel important. They can master playground games instead.

It’s also important to keep in mind students who are targeted by perpetrators can also turn into bullies. Bullying becomes a self-perpetuating behavior. By creating playgrounds that discourage aggression, it is possible to work to break this cycle.

Creating an inclusive playground space can reduce exclusion, which is a common tool bullies use. By showing that everyone can use the playground, inclusive spaces can build empathy and forge bonds while also reducing the isolation that uninclusive playgrounds unintentionally cause.

9. Set up and Post Playground Rules Designed to Minimize Bullying

Clearly posted rules that prohibit pushing, shoving and other undesirable behaviors are important. Children appreciate clear rules and structures, and it makes it easier for them to report aggressive behavior on the playground. If children have clear rules about no shoving, for example, they may feel more comfortable coming forward when they do see shoving take place.

Clear rules also encourage kids to be on their best behavior. When children know they cannot curse or name-call, they may find it easier to follow the rules if they are reminded of them. Of course, posted rules also give children good motivation to obey.

10. Create a Playground That Reduces the Risk of Conflict

Make sure there is enough space and enough “cool” pieces of equipment to ensure all children get to play, since scarcity or overcrowding can lead to conflict. Problems on the playground can occur if there aren’t enough stimulating pieces of equipment, causing undue competition for the best pieces of equipment.

Try to include plenty of areas for fun exploration and multiple activities for all levels. In addition, create cozy or quieter spaces for children who need to wind down or who require less stimulation from time to time.

How Inclusive Playground Design Can Make a Difference

Inclusive play and inclusive playground design are essential components of making sure a playground can help cut down on bullying. Inclusive play:

  • Allows a greater number of children to use the playground, including those living with conditions affecting their mobility or function.
  • Reduces the chance some children will be excluded from play because they cannot use the playground.
  • Allows all kids to play, allowing them to get to know each other despite any perceived differences in a social setting, fostering understanding.
  • Reduces any perceived “differences” by making sure all children can play, which lessens the chance that children will be targeted or picked on.
  • Helps avoid children being separated into cliques or groups based on access to the playground, creating fewer barriers. With fewer strongly divided groups, it becomes easier for children to cooperate and play together, even across distances and age groups.
  • Helps to prevent smaller children from being bullied because of their size by allowing them to play with other kids in the playground.
  • Creates playground spaces that can be used by children of different languages, cultures and communication abilities.

Inclusive play provides an opportunity for children to communicate and socialize. This minimizes their differences and creates common ground, fostering an understanding that can translate into the classroom and other areas.

11-opportunity

How to Create an Inclusive Playground to Discourage Bullying

Creating an inclusive playground has many benefits. It allows all children, regardless of mobility and other conditions, to use the playground to the best of their abilities. It ensures all children get to have fun, and it helps your playground lessen the risk of bullying by making sure no one feels excluded and no one is singled out as “different.”

12-inclusive-able-bodied-disabilities

An inclusive playground is designed both for able-bodied children and children with disabilities. To build an inclusive playground, you will want to do the following:

1. Use Unitary Surfacing

Poured-in-place playground surfacing, rubber tile surfacing, loose fill playground surfacing such as engineered wood fiber or rubber mulch and SMARTE® playground surfacing can help protect the investment you’ve made in your playground.

Quality surfacing can also help prevent injuries caused by falls and make it easier for children and caregivers with mobility equipment to use and access all pieces of equipment. In addition, playground mats under high-traffic areas can help protect surfacing and offer an extra layer of protection.

2. Create Clear Routes Between Spaces to Avoid Collisions

Between each piece of equipment, allow for wide-enough spaces to allow children to move together in groups. It should be easy for children to run and walk between pieces of equipment without bumping into each other, since bumping into each other can cause conflict.

Keep in mind children with mobility equipment such as wheelchairs also need to be able to move easily between equipment. Make sure any course created through the playground is accessible with crutches, wheelchairs and other equipment.

3. Cluster Similar Activities to Encourage Children of Different Abilities to Play

13-cluster-activitiesGliders and swings can be placed together so children can move together. Different types of music equipment and auditory equipment designed to create musical noise can be grouped together to allow children of different ages to use their age-specific equipment together. Quieter spaces and cozy spaces should be in a separate area of the playground where children who become easily overwhelmed can sit quietly together.

Children may find common ground and overcome bullying when they focus on their similarities rather than their differences. Group similar equipment together to make it possible for children to play together despite any differences.

Grouping similar activities can also reduce conflict caused by noise and incompatibility. For example, grouping musical equipment and noise-making equipment far from the cozy and quiet spaces ensures children who want to make music and children who need quiet are not in conflict. This grouping can allow for a more harmonious use of playground equipment.

4. Create Spaces for Elevated Play, With a Larger Payoff for Getting to That Space

14-multiple-levels

Elevated spaces can be a lot of fun, but they can also pose challenges. Someone who has to work a little bit more to get to an elevated space needs to have a greater payoff. For example, if someone uses a wheelchair to get to the top of the slide, there should be more to do at the top than simply slide down, since sliding only takes a few seconds and then requires considerable effort to get back up to the same level.

Elevated play can be a lot of fun for children of all ages, but make sure there is fun for everyone involved. The Unity® Slide Climber from Playworld, for example, offers a meeting space at the top of the slide as well as other challenges.

5. Create Multiple Levels of Challenge to Engage Children of All Ability Levels

Children who are bored because they’re not challenged may be more likely to lash out, especially if they’re still developing their social skills. Keeping children engaged and interested in play means they focus on fun and creativity rather than on others. To help encourage cooperation and discourage bullying, create challenges for children of all ability levels. This may mean creating multisensory playground areas where children of different abilities and ages can play.

For example, a textured surface with a space for playing music can encourage children to make noise and touch the textured surface. This can be a great option if they’re tired out from swinging or gliding on gliders. Some pieces of equipment can appeal to many children with different levels of ability. The Roller Slither Slide from Playworld, for example, is a full-body, tactile experience with texture, a slide and sound.

6. Allow for Different Zones of Activity, Including Quiet Zones

Zones with nature activities, auditory activities and more physical activities let children run around and try different options. However, it is also important to include quieter zones for children who get overwhelmed.

This can help discourage children from getting aggressive because of that overwhelmed feeling or because they are upset by too much noise. It can also be a useful place to take a child struggling with cooperation. A bit of quiet time with others who are also quiet can help defuse a difficult situation.

7. Make Sure Everyone Can Access the “Coolest” Equipment to Reduce Exclusion

Think carefully about the “coolest” pieces of equipment. If only a few students can play on these items at a time, exclusion and bullying can happen. If there are only a few pieces of cool equipment, this can also create competition on the playground, which can inadvertently lead to bullying.

Unfortunately, having only one cool piece of equipment and limiting access to it can also place children with mobility issues at an increased risk of bullying. Children living with disabilities are two or three more times more likely to be bullied when compared with other students. Creating a safe playground can help discourage bullying among all children. It can also ensure children who are living with mobility issues or other perceived differences are less likely to be targeted specifically.

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If possible, create several pieces of equipment that can be seen as “cool” and ensure they are accessible by as many children as possible. If possible, link the coolest piece of equipment to other pieces that are also attractive to encourage larger numbers of children to play together.

For example, Funky Animals and Spring Riders can be grouped together so lots of children can play or be placed near Animal Tunes panels by Playworld. This allows some children to play with the animals and some to make animal noises at the same time. Rather than having children competing for the Spring Riders, children can switch up or try to coordinate movements and sounds.

Your Options for Design

Playground design, especially inclusive playground design, has the potential to reduce the risk of fighting and disagreements on playgrounds. It can create a more inclusive field of play, meaning children are encouraged to participate and play together rather than focus on differences.

Inclusive playground design and smart designs can help reduce perceived differences and can help children get to know each other, which can help reduce bullying both on the playground and in other spaces. Good playground design can also minimize hidden spaces where harassment between children take can take place.

Additionally, good playground design addresses some of the root causes of conflict. If perpetrators are frustrated or can’t access pieces of playground equipment, they may be more likely to act out. Inclusive design means providing stimulating components that allow children of all ability levels to take part in play.

This results in less frustration, meaning children are more likely to focus on play rather than on aggression. Since underdeveloped social skills can also cause bullying, smart playground design with safe and quiet spaces as well as cooperative playground equipment can help encourage good interpersonal skills, and thus help reduce the risk problems long-term. For a child who has been targeted before, inclusive design can help them get to use playground equipment with other children, creating new friendships and building confidence.

Use Our Resources to Create Your Inclusive Playground

Visit Playworld’s resource section to find playground bullying prevention resources. You’ll find ideas for your inclusive playground and more information about inclusive play spaces. We are a leader in inclusive play, and we have details about funding as well as specific equipment to help you build a kinder, more inclusive play space.

Playworld can be your partner in developing an inclusive playground, which helps encourage positive behavior on your play area.


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