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Playgrounds begin to focus on riskier play

If it seems to you like children's playground designs have become much more risk-averse in recent decades, you're not alone. But there now seems to be a push to make some playgrounds a little "riskier."

Some play spaces return to riskier structures to encourage activity

The Terra Nova Adventure Play Environment in Richmond, B.C., encourages outdoor play with 'riskier' elements such as ziplines and a rope walkway. (richmond.ca)

If it seems to you like children's playground designs have become much more risk-averse in recent decades, you're not alone.

But there now seems to be a push to make some playgrounds a little "riskier."

The Canadian non-profit Lawson Foundation recently announced $2.7 million in grants for 18 Canadian projects as part of its outdoor play strategy.

The Glenora Child Care Society in Edmonton was among the groups that received funds from the Lawson Society to encourage outdoor play. (CBC)
The strategy includes new programs and infrastructure across Canada, such as playgrounds where kids can engage in less structured — and potentially more risky — play, with the goal of encouraging more outdoor physical activity for children.

Christine Alden, program director at the Lawson Foundation, told CBC the foundation is working with partner agencies in Calgary to encourage that kind of activity.

"They're going to develop a play charter to support unstructured and risky play, and it includes a capital infrastructure commitment to build an outdoor adventure playground," she said.

That isn't to say anyone is trying to develop play spaces where kids can get seriously injured, but rather spaces that encourage more calculated risks. Riskier playgrounds can include equipment that's higher, for example, or surfaces that aren't necessarily soft.

Richmond playground includes ziplines

It's an approach that's already showing up in some public spaces.

A slide at the Terra Nova play area in Richmond, B.C., is higher than many. (richmond.ca)
The Terra Nova play area in Richmond, B.C., includes ziplines, swings of varying heights and a rope walkway.

Not everyone agrees that safer playgrounds are a problem, though.

A 2012 report from the Canadian Paediatric Society said hospitalization rates for injuries suffered in playground falls decreased by 27 per cent between 1994 and 2003.

That report also recommended strategies such as reducing the maximum fall height of equipment and reducing the risk of falling from equipment by including protective barriers and guardrails.

'The more we protect our children, the more we're putting them at risk of danger,' says psychiatrist and author Shimi Kang. (CBC)
But it also urged the use of age-appropriate equipment and noted that "Active outdoor play contributes immeasurably to children's health, well-being and overall development." 

Psychiatrist Shimi Kang, author of The Dolphin Parent, agrees — and says parents need to become a bit less risk-averse when it comes to children's play.

"The more we protect our children, the more we're putting them at risk of danger," she said.

"Fundamentally, we need a shift in how we approach children. These [riskier playgrounds] are portals, these are tools for us. We have to use the tools the right way."

Risk improves interactions, creativity: study

Kang said both in her research and her practice, she sees many parents go too far in trying to protect their children from falling or scraping their knees.

It's not simply a case of having a sense that things used to be better "back in the good old days," she said.

"I don't think it's just romanticizing the past," she said. "There's some real trends that are not serving our health, our physical and mental health."

Recent research from the University of British Columbia and the Child and Family Research Institute at B.C. Children's Hospital found that play environments where children could take risks promoted increased play time, social interactions, creativity and resilience.

Play 'a sacred activity of childhood'

As a mother of three, Kang said she understands it can be difficult to let go and allow your children to take risks.

"My advice to parents is to not look at play as this kind of fun thing, and let's hope they don't get hurt, but as a sacred activity of childhood … an activity that has very strong neuroscience underpinnings that have evolved over a millennium to allow our human beings to develop in a safe and healthy way."

About the Author

Jason Osler

Jason Osler is the national 'trends' columnist for CBC Radio.

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