Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is the bar set too low in playgrounds?

Jul 20, 2011
Experts say a child who takes risk in play is more likely to overcome fear

NEW YORK: When see-saws, tall slides and other perils were disappearing from New York's playgrounds, Mr Henry Stern drew a line in the sandbox.

As the city's parks commissioner in the 1990s, he issued an edict concerning the 3m-high jungle gym near his childhood home in northern Manhattan.

'I grew up on the monkey bars in Fort Tryon Park, and I never forgot how good it felt to get to the top of them,' Mr Stern said. '... as long as I was parks commissioner, those monkey bars were going to stay.'

His philosophy seemed reactionary at the time, but today it is shared by some researchers who question the value of 'safety-first' playgrounds.

But even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries - and the evidence for that is debatable - critics say these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.

'Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears in the playground,' said Dr Ellen Sandseter, a psychology professor at Queen Maud University in Norway.

'I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.'

After observing children in playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common of these is climbing heights.

'Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,' she said.

'Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point the first time. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.'

Of course, at times, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, physically or emotionally.

While some psychologists - and many parents - worry that a child who suffers a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies show the opposite: A child who is hurt in a fall before the age of nine is less likely, as a teenager, to fear heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers in the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, say Dr Sandseter and her fellow psychologist Leif Kennair of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

'Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety,' they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this 'anti-phobic effect' helps explain the evolution of children's fondness for thrill-seeking.

While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive - why would natural selection favour children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? - the dangers seem to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.

'Paradoxically,' they write, 'we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.'

Tall jungle gyms and slides are gone from most playgrounds in the US because of parental concerns, federal guidelines, new safety standards set by manufacturers and - the most frequently cited factor - fear of lawsuits.

New York City officials removed see-saws, merry-go-rounds and the ropes that young Tarzans used to swing from one platform to another. Letting children swing on tyres became taboo because of fears that the heavy swings could bang into a child.

New features were introduced - such as shorter equipment and rubber flooring, wood chips or other materials designed for softer landings - and these have prevented some injuries.

Mr Adrian Benepe, New York City's current parks commissioner, said: 'What happens in America is defined by tort lawyers, and unfortunately that limits some of the adventure playgrounds.'

But while he misses the Tarzan ropes, he is glad that the litigation rate has declined. 'I think safety surfaces are a godsend,' he said. 'I suspect that parents who have to deal with concussions and broken arms wouldn't agree that playgrounds have become too safe.'

Dr David Ball, a risk management professor at Middlesex University in Londo, said: 'There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds.'

The risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces for playgrounds in Britain and Australia, he said.

The ultra-safe enclosed platforms of the 1980s and 1990s may have been an overreaction, Mr Benepe said, but lately there have been more creative alternatives.

'The good news is that manufacturers have brought out new versions of the old toys... Because of height limitations, no one's building the old monkey bars any more, but kids can go up smaller climbing walls and rope nets and artificial rocks.'

In Singapore, the Housing Board introduced playgrounds with standard-play equipment to meet international safety standards from 1993, and rubber floors replaced sandpits from the late 1990s.

'Town councils indicated they generally preferred rubber flooring as it is impact- absorbing and provides better protection from falls, and also more versatile,' an HDB spokesman told The Straits Times. She added that safety was the HDB's top priority.


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