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The hazards of safe playgrounds

Nov 21, 2014 |

Modern playgrounds are so safe they may be holding kids back developmentally, according to a pair of UBC scholars who recently released the results of a research survey confirming public opinion on the issue.

Mariana Brussoni – a childhood injury specialist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the School of Population and Public Health – partnered with Susan Herrington, a Professor in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, to examine adults’ attitudes on contemporary playgrounds and their childhood memories of their favourite play spaces.

The project – titled “Play Worth Remembering: Gaining Public Insights into Memories of Outdoor Play Spaces” – surveyed close to 600 adults over 19 years of age. It was kickstarted by the Peter Wall Institute’s Research Mentoring Program, which links experienced Faculty Associates of the Institute with early- to mid-career scholars to engage in interdisciplinary, innovative research.

A majority of survey respondents (69 per cent) found today’s playgrounds too safe and lacking challenges. Another 59 per cent said that in their own childhood experiences they preferred natural play spaces – such as backyards, forests or waterfront areas – to those designed specifically for play.

Overall, the respondents’ preferences for natural play settings and play props point to a need for landscape architects and community planners to use more natural elements and physical challenge in modern play spaces, the authors say.

Most of today’s playgrounds, the now ubiquitous and colourful pre-fabricated play structures, simply don’t serve a child’s developmental need for free playtime. Over the years, Dr. Brussoni says, these structures have become lower to the ground and constructed largely with man-made safety materials like rubberized play surfaces.

“The most important aspect of children’s play spaces is the fact that children can manipulate those spaces to suit their own activities,” explains Dr. Brussoni, adding that traditional playground structures make this nearly impossible.

Dr. Mariana Brussoni

Dr. Mariana Brussoni

In free play, children make decisions for themselves on how to interact with different objects – known as play props – in the environment around them. Natural settings provide countless play props, and droppings from trees and plants quickly become anything imaginable as kids invent new ways to play, build and move through space.

Survey respondents named features like sticks, plants, trees, rocks and boulders as some of their favourite elements in remembered play spaces, and the working paper calls for architects and community planners to focus on including more natural elements, risk opportunities, physical challenges and open-ended space for exploration in modern play spaces.

“If I’m a child and I’m on a piece of equipment, I know it’s been engineered for me. It’s not going to break … it’s repetitious,” Prof. Herrington explains. “If I’m in a tree, I have to look at a branch and determine if it’s going to hold me or not… It’s really, developmentally, completely different.”

“We also need to realize that kids need risk experiences,” adds Dr. Brussoni, explaining that recent research strongly supports the hypothesis that these lower-level risky events – such as learning to climb a tree or balance on a log bridge – are actually anti-phobic experiences. Fear of heights, an anxiety-inducing experience for many people, is a prime example.

“If you watch kids play, they’re really good at gradually introducing themselves to challenges,” she explains. So while a child may only climb up the first three branches of a tree one day, they are likely to climb higher on the next attempts.

“Imagine if you’re never given the opportunity to climb higher. You don’t realize that you’re capable of doing it … You can imagine if you’re climbing a little bit higher every day, you’re actually doing what cognitive behavioral therapy is … you’re calming yourself and you’re mastering [the task] so it doesn’t produce anxiety any more.”

Balancing the need for free play and risk with safety concerns from parents isn’t easy, and Dr. Brussoni says more research and hard numbers are needed to convince holdouts of the need for change.

Next, Dr. Brussoni and Prof. Herrington are conducting an intervention study at two childcare centres in the Lower Mainland to study how better play space design may effect bullying, aggression, physical activity, and social levels in children.

Left: One of the childcare play spaces selected for revitalization in Dr. Brussoni and Prof. Herrington’s Lower Mainland intervention study. Right: A similar site enhanced with new plants and natural materials.

The childcare centre spaces were revitalized with plants and natural materials like sand and bamboo poles according to specific design principals from Prof. Herrington’s 20 years of experience in landscape architecture.

Dr. Brussoni says she has been “amazed” at the visible results, but is hesitant to make further comments until the data have been fully analyzed.

“It definitely changes the way that children play. We saw children taking social risk as well – shy kids all of a sudden had an environment where they felt a bit more confident because it wasn’t just a piece of prescribed activity. They were inventive,” says Prof. Herrington, who admits her background in qualitative research makes it easier to comment on observations before the final numbers are in.

“I’ve never had a mentor in a field so separated from my own,” says Dr. Brussoni on the opportunity to blend her scientific background with Prof. Herrington’s own research approaches.

“The fact that we’ve come to the same place from two different areas is really fulfilling.”

The original article by the Peter Wall Institute is here.