If you’ve been at the corner of Walter and Walworth, you are undoubtedly aware of the new slide looming above the soon-to-open playground at Fallon Field. It’s a big slide, possibly the highest in the Boston area. We hear a lot of feedback about both that slide and the whole playground design. While the majority of the comments are extremely positive, we also hear some questions about safety. Balancing safety and risk in playgrounds is an important discussion that is happening across the country; in this post we weigh in with our thoughts on risk and why we advocated for such challenging elements at this playground.
Risk is Not Hazard
To get started, we need to explain what we mean by risk, and how risks differ from hazards in a playground setting.
Playground hazards introduce the possibility of injury from something that children cannot foresee and adjust to in their play. This could be the result of a design flaw (for example, a too-wide gap in a railing) or an equipment defect. Playground risks, on the other hand, are challenging situations that children encounter as they explore their limits. While risks may introduce some chance of injury, they are fundamentally different from hazards because they are part of important learning and skill-building activities.
Here is how this distinction was described in the journal Injury Prevention, including a relevant example:
Risks (situations in which a child can recognise and evaluate the challenge and decide on a course of action) have been equated with hazards (a source of harm that is not obvious to the child, such that the potential for injury is hidden). For example, climbing a tall slide is a risk, whereas a hazard would be that the slide is not properly anchored and could topple with the child’s weight. Confusing risk with hazard has made it more challenging to recognise the benefits of risk.
Historically, this confusion about the concepts of risk and hazard – especially when combined with concerns about litigation – has contributed to playground designs that attempt to remove all possibility of injury, eliminating both true hazards and much of the risk. While we fully support efforts to eliminate hazards from playgrounds, we also believe that it is crucial to understand the important benefits of risk.
Dr. Peter Gray, an evolutionary biology and psychology researcher at Boston College, provides an overview of the developmental benefits of risky play in his article “Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It“. While the article discusses issues well beyond a tall slide, many of its main points are quite relevant to the discussion of risky play elements at Fallon Field:
In risky play, youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their heads and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear. They learn that they can manage their fear, overcome it, and come out alive.
This makes intuitive sense in the Fallon Field design. Children exposed to natural elements like boulders in the playground, including in the sometimes slippery water feature, are likely better equipped to approach the conditions of the real world such as wet rocks on a New Hampshire mountain stream. Similarly, important balancing skills are better learned on the uneven surface of rocks than a predictably smooth one. Some play advocates take this concept even further and argue that resilient surfacing contributes to higher injury rates: children only accustomed to “soft” ground do not learn the skills necessary to fall safely on the unforgiving hard surfaces everywhere else. If developing skills required to gauge and negotiate risky situations is important, what better place to do so than a playground that has been designed to provide an appropriate level of risk while avoiding true hazards?
There are still other benefits to risk. Some research also suggests a correlation between children’s exposure to risk and growth in important developmental areas such as creativity, persistence and reslience.
Children Seek Out Risk
Many parents will know that regardless of how safe a design may appear the drive for risk in some children will push them to seek its limits anyway. Playgrounds that are designed to incorporate challenge and risk can accommodate this type of usage in a way that manages the actual danger that children encounter. Playgrounds that attempt to design out risk, on the other hand, may be misused by children seeking a challenge. In our view, challenging play equipment that is used as intended is in some ways safer than equipment that is designed to minimize risk but is misused by children who find it uninteresting.
A few years ago, The Atlantic published an article with the headline “New Playgrounds Are Safe—and That’s Why Nobody Uses Them“. That article opened with the following sentence:
The problem with safety guidelines is that they make most playgrounds so uninteresting as to contribute to reduced physical activity.
While the article goes on to suggest that, for now at least, parents may wish to find other sources for active play beyond playgrounds, our hope is that by adding challenge and interest to our playgrounds they will continue to provide great opportunities for active play. Our sense is that the uniqueness of the Fallon design – in addition to its bold use of the grade change – will make it a destination and could draw out children who might otherwise engage in less active forms of play.
Playgrounds Should Appeal to a Wide Age Range
One of the goals of our advocacy during the Fallon Field playground renovation process was to expand the age range that the playground might appeal to. We think our playgrounds should be great public spaces for all of our neighborhood’s children. Because there are few, if any, structures that are both appropriate for younger children and appealing to older children, creating a playground that will be used by a wide age range will necessarily include some elements that are simply too ambitious for some of its visitors. For parents of a toddler, having your child reach the top of the slide may seem hopelessly far in the future. On the other hand, having that goal to build up to over months or years will keep the playground interesting to the child for that much longer.
The Challenge for Caretakers
We know as parents that when one of our children is doing something that is out of our comfort zone – something that feels dangerous – it’s hard to separate the hazard from the risk. We are learning slowly that we must suppress our own impulse to intervene when one of our children is experimenting with something that appears beyond their competence and from which they may get hurt. But unlike the world outside the playground where they may well encounter hazards, a playground design such as Fallon’s that poses developmentally important challenges without the hazards is a relatively safe place to explore these limits. We try to keep that in mind and hope you will too.
Playground safety is a major issue that is discussed widely. In addition to those we have linked to above, the following articles have also helped us better understand the benefits of challenging, risky play:
- Playground Battles: Can Safety and Adventure Co-Exist Where Children Play?
- The Dissolution of Children’s Outdoor Play: Causes and Consequences
- Richmond Made A Playground Risky. Now Another Community Is Following Suit.
- Managing Risk in Play Provision: A Position Statement
- Children’s Play and Leisure – Promoting a Balanced Approach
- Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development