Atlantic Cities has an interesting history of The politics of Playgrounds . The first was created in San Francisco in 1887, with the first muncipal playground created in New York City in 1903. What the writer, Amanda Erickson, calls “the safety backlash,” began in 1912. She describes this as a debate between two groups:
On the one side, you have the safety advocates who want lower structures, softer ground, and less opportunities for falling off or over, well, anything. On the other, those who worry that a safe playground is a boring playground that will do little to stimulate a child’s imagination.
The debate, she says, is ongoing, but nevertheless it seems to me that the first group is winning. It certainly has the advantage. The argument for more safety is the easier argument to make, because the failures to accept it can be so obvious and so heart-wrenching, whereas its failures are not nearly so obvious. Yet the effect over time and on the whole of the attitude toward childhood the playground safety police represent may be more damaging than we can easily see.
Indeed, the article with which Erickson begins, Playgrounds that rip up the safety rules , quotes the Danish designer of “nature playgrounds” Helle Nebelong, who makes a practical argument that too safe encourages children in being less safe:
I am convinced that standardised playgrounds are dangerous, just in another way: When the distance between all the rungs in a climbing net or a ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. Standardisation is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements. This lesson cannot be carried over to all the knobbly and asymmetrical forms, with which one is confronted throughout life.
It reminds me of playing hockey with friends on small frozen streams or ponds, which always included small islands or tufts of grass sticking up through the ice. You would have to keep them in mind as you skated, especially if you were playing defense and skating backwards, and having to do so made you a more alert player and gave you some experience in keeping track of several conditions (your teammates, the other team, the islands and tufts of grass) at once. It probably didn’t teach us much, but it taught us something. And it added to the pleasure of the game to boot.
But parents worry, because the world is a dangerous place. Erickson’s description of the debate over playgrounds reminds me of something I wrote last year, The Anxious Parent , which seems to have struck a nerve. It appeared fourteen months ago and I still meet people (one just last week) who say, “Oh, you wrote that article about the trampoline.” Many of us feel the tension between our drive to protect and our sense that our children need some freedom, even though freedom, even if it’s only the freedom to climb to the top of the jungle gym in a playground the safety police haven’t yet redesigned, is always risky.