Date: August 31, 2011
Are playgrounds "too easy" for kids to learn important lessons? Ellen Sandseter, a professor of physical education at Queen Maud University in Norway, says children are increasingly using playgrounds that lack certain equipment and challenges most of their parents remember, such as monkey bars, merry-go-rounds and long, steep slides. Ongoing research by Sandseter has led her to conclude that the abolition of risky play equipment may offer a disservice to kids. Why? They need to learn to cope with danger and thrills to learn how to manage difficult challenges later in life, she says.
In recent years, many towns and counties have set goals to make school and public playgrounds safer for children and limit liability for potential injuries. Though it's likely the movement has prevented some injuries, Sandseter's research suggests the opportunity to experience risk at an early age can actually prevent kids from developing certain anxieties and phobias, including a fear of heights.
In a paper published in Volume 9 2011 of the journal Evolutionary Psychology (www.epjournal.net), Sandseter and co-author Leif Kennair of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology cite research showing children who fall between ages 5 and 9 have less of a fear of heights as adults than children who never fell. The paper concludes that "risky play" permits children to confront their fears and become less anxious adults.
"Even though highly active and risk-taking children experience more (albeit minor) injuries, this article suggests that these children will benefit psychologically from natural adaptive fear alleviation and the anti-phobic effect of risky play," the authors write.
They focused on normal children, not injury-prone children or "children with pathological proneness to injuries, nor the extremely shy and introverted children who actively avoid all risks, negative emotions, social situations and challenges."
Data from the National Program for Playground Safety indicates that more than 200,000 children were treated for playground injuries at emergency rooms each year between 2001 and 2008, and about half the injuries occurred on public playgrounds. Most were related to falls, which caused many public officials and schools to set height limits and remove climbing bars from playgrounds. The organization recommends no equipment be taller than 8 feet. Other research suggests parental supervision and softer playground surfaces, such as wood chips, do not reduce the likelihood of injuries when children are playing.