The information age has ushered in an era of fear about children’s well-being, shifting norms heavily towards constant oversight and nearly impossible standards of safety. One casualty of that trend has been the playground, which has become mind-numbingly standard-issue—with the same type of plastic swing sets and slides—designed to minimize harm, rather than maximize enjoyment.
Over the last few years, however, pushback against the overly sanitized playground has grown considerably, with new research supporting the importance of play—especially unstructured play—for early childhood development. Critics also argue that concerns about actual harm are overstated. These findings have raised questions about playground design. Is the current playground model fostering creativity, independence, and problem-solving? What does risk really mean—and when is it OK? What can alternatives to current play spaces look like? And how can their benefits extend to all children in a city? Architects, researchers, childhood development specialists, and parents are weighing in on these questions around the world, and outlining a new vision for the future of play.
“The take-home message for municipalities is: Stop setting your bar at the level of the most anxious parent. If you do that, you’re guaranteed to produce boring and dull playgrounds,” said Tim Gill, a London-based researcher and advocate who recently authored a white paper on faulty assumptions about risky playgrounds. “If you set your bar at the level of the average parent or maybe even at the level of the parents … who do want some more excitement and challenge in their kids’ lives, then, things start to look different.”
The adventure playground is emerging as an alternative to the boring, albeit “safe,” play areas for kids—particularly in the U.S. and the U.K. These are spaces that look like scrap yards, with loose tires, blocks of wood, rope, and tools like hammers and nails, where children are free to build and destroy their surroundings as they choose. They can even set fires.
Reilly Wilson is the board chair of nonprofit play:groundNYC, which runs an adventure playground on Governors Island in New York City. There, parents are only allowed in the section for very young children. The older kids play under the watch of “play workers” who are trained to analyze the quality of risk, asking: Is this something the child will learn from or is this something that will hurt the child? They rarely have to intervene because children are making the same determinations themselves. According to Wilson, knowing that they’re in a high-risk environment makes kids pay more attention, whereas super sanitized environments may have the opposite effect. That’s why she rejects the claims that adventure playgrounds are “risky” spaces, full of uncertainty.
“A lot of times in environments designed for children, all the risk has been removed and they’re made very aware of that,” said Wilson. “So then they do things which are actually more dangerous than the environments weren’t designed to accommodate.”
“It is actually incredibly easy to insure those types of play environments as long as you have properly trained staff who are constantly risk-assessing,” she added.
Adventure playgrounds are part of a new approach, led by Australia, Canada, and the U.K., that puts risk back in the mix in public spaces. Is it working? According to some metrics, yes. Philadelphia-based architect Meghan Talarowski surveyed 16 playgrounds in London, gathering information from 18,000 people. These were playgrounds with a variety of surfaces, including combinations of sand, grass, water, and paved ground. The features were uniquely designed and arranged so that kids could crawl through faux caves, climb boulders, hop on and off a trail of wooden pads, swing wildly, or play organized sports. What Talarowski found was that these types of playgrounds had 53 percent more visitors than America’s cookie cutter ones, and children are up to 18 percent more physically active. They were also cheaper and safer.
The idea of “risky” play is not just gaining traction in Western countries. Even in India, where formal playgrounds are not as common, advocates are using the government’s Smart Cities push to make space for tiered, multi-purpose playgrounds. Some plans for parks in Bhubaneswar city incorporate splash parks, sand boxes, walls that children can paint, and amphitheaters.
In Taiwan, parents are the ones leading the change. Christine Lee from Taipei is a young mother of a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old who has rallied against the government’s decision to replace the concrete slides, high climbing towers, and spinners they had before with boring, sub-standard equipment compliant with Chinese standards. She’s started a 50-person-strong non-profit called Parks and Playgrounds For Children By Children. The government has now invited her collective to become a part of the design process. “We had our Taipei revolution, and the New Taipei revolution (the) next year,” she said. “After two years, it’s island-wide.”
Gill recently authored a white paper poking holes in the faulty assumptions about risk in playgrounds. “This paper comes from a realization that many grown-ups have gotten confused about what playgrounds are for—they’ve kind of been under the delusion that it was possible to create playgrounds where no injuries ever happen,” he says of the study, which was commissioned by the Bernard van Leer Foundation, an organization that supports interventions for early childhood development in cities. (Disclosure: The Bernard Van Leer Foundation is also providing funding for CityLab’s reporting on raising young kids in cities.) “Let’s get clear about what playgrounds are for, and why it’s good for children to have that challenge and uncertainty and risk—and then let’s talk about how you can strike a good balance.”
According to Gill, all risks aren’t the same—some should be addressed directly and others should be avoided entirely. Trying to build a playground with the goal of removing uncertainty altogether is not only futile, it’s also counterproductive, and removes the potential for teaching kids skills they’ll need to navigate the real world.
As children grow, “they become better risk managers,” Gill said. “That journey is best made in gradual steps by allowing children to have some freedom and some control over how to figure out what’s the best way to deal with tricky or uncertain situations.”
While the conversation around “risky” play is growing, cities continue to be held back by a deep fear of lawsuits—even though Gill’s research shows that actual cases of litigation are extremely rare in Europe and Canada. America is more litigious, but even there, costs are relatively low. New York City paid only 0.4 percent of its total liability payments in a nine-year period because of playground incidents, according to Gil’s research. Local governments have nevertheless clung to rigid industry standards for playground equipment that often may have more to do with commercial interests than safety, Gill said. He and others are pushing cities around the world to examine their own risk-benefit criteria, and plan playgrounds using clear data on what children want and need to grow.
For Wilson, cities that want to support adventure playgrounds need to carve out some money in their budgets for staffing. But to make play more inclusive, cities need to think beyond playgrounds altogether. These may not cater to everyday needs of children—and may not be accessible to kids who don’t have the luxury of having parents or caregivers to cart them around, she said. Apart from instituting better urban design that lends itself to play in the streets, she added, local governments could shut down certain streets so kids can play near their homes; put up a climbing wall at the public library that has an after-school program; and link up play with school lunch programs, to give a few examples. Lastly, while cities are paranoid of certain types of perceived “risk,” they ignore a key reason why parents of color restrict their children’s outdoors play time: harsh policing. Creating more playful cities requires a reckoning with broader systemic issues.
“The conversation, I think, really needs to move beyond just physical risks,” said Wilson.