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Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Playground?



Remember the old days when you could walk to the playground and find a super fast, metal slide high above the ground with a steep, steel ladder? You’d climb to the very top and pause a moment to soak in the frightening, yet exhilarating view of the entire park. You’d spy the yellow-painted, metal carousel that could spin you to windblown nausea. You’d see the wooden beams connected together to form an obstacle course of balance-challenging logs and stumps smoothed by the many adventurous kids who hopped between them. 

This is how I fondly remember the park near my childhood home. It was a fun place to play, spend time with friends or make new ones, and seemed relatively safe with no recollection of any serious injuries.

Then Things Changed

Unfortunately, many wooden play structures became obsolete upon the discovery that arsenic and other harmful chemicals were part of the pressure-treating wood preservation process. Metal slides that burned hot during hot, sunny days, fell out of favor also, so new playground equipment sprouted up.

Big, colorful plastic structures with clever handholds and bright pictures populate most playgrounds now. They look fun and are safe for little ones to test their might when climbing, but what about the older kids? We realize they’re safe, but are they fun, and do they really offer the challenge older children require for exploring, learning and growing?

Already my children rarely play on their wooden swing set that we bought 6 years ago. They consider it boring and too easy to provide them enough excitement when I urge them outdoors. The only item included that gets play anymore is the small clubhouse that my 6- and 9-year-old now dwarf.

Are Today's Playgrounds Too Safe?

Did you read the New York Times article or watch a report regarding playground safety that questioned whether today’s playgrounds are too safe? It mentions that today’s playground equipment offers less challenges, and also that there is a false sense of security for children with all the safety measures implemented. Once children meet up with a real test of their physical skills, they may either opt to avoid the challenge or not understand how to overcome it. Apparently, parents’ fears about a child falling may be less dramatic because children who fall off a structure at a young age are less likely to have a fear of heights.

You rarely see groups of older children scaling play structures like you once did. Plenty of children reside in my neighborhood around the mid-to-older child age range, and they rarely use their swing sets if they even still have them. Whenever we drive around, my husband will comment about how many backyard swing sets appear unused, faded and lonely. Maybe it’s due to parents working longer hours or that kids are now very involved with several extracurricular activities outside the home.

My mom tells me that when she was very pregnant with my sister, I climbed to the top of a high, metal slide at age 2. At the top, I grew frightened and would neither go down the slide nor climb back down.  She looked around, hoping a kind parent would help the poor pregnant lady retrieve me off the slide. With no other alternative, she plucked me off the slide herself.

That happened to me when my almost 3-year old daughter pitched backward out a slide entryway when I was about 7-months pregnant.  Luckily, I waddled to her just in time to catch her, no damage done.  And maybe if she had indeed crash landed, she may have suffered nothing more than a bruised ego or shin. Once my son learned to walk, he ran, climbed and explored with me right behind him as a mild precaution. I didn’t deter him from his explorations, and I benefited from the exercise, losing any remaining baby weight.

Missing Out on Adventure

With the new playgrounds, it’s like they hired a Gordon Ramsey-like personality to scope out and revamp any supposedly “unsafe” playgrounds for his new show, “Playground Nightmares/Potential Lawsuits.”  We’ve even changed the terminology, eliminating descriptions like “jungle gym” out of the vernacular.  Will bored older children seek out more dangerous outlets for their energy if they are not offered challenging play equipment? It’s possible, but mostly, I think they’re missing out on the adventure, excitement and teachable moments of a little controlled danger. 

As my friend R mentioned, “I fell off the monkey bars…many times….And while I hope [my children] never break a bone…it would be worse to never hang upside down from them.”  If you never try and fail, you’ll never learn to try and succeed.

M.B. Sanok is a South Jersey mom and a blogger for JerseyMomsBlog, where this post originated.

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