Safe enough or too safe?

What is it?

An article published in the New York Times a few months ago, viewable here, asked the question: can a playground be too safe? Is it really necessary to prevent potential injuries on and around play equipment with rubber matting, lower monkey bars and slower slides? Or is the importance of learning our internal limits and overcoming our fears while still children worth the risk of the occasional broken bone?

Based on observations made in Norway, England and here in Australia, Norwegian professor of psychology, Ellen Sandseter, believes so. She states that “children need to encounter risks and overcome fears in the playground”. Her research has discovered that children approach thrills in a progressive manner, with very few trying to reach the highest point on the jungle gym the first time they climb. Instead, they learn to master the challenges of the playground through their play step by step over the years. In doing so, they also master their fear of heights, speed and other play-related stimuli – the thrill experienced with these stimuli is an important counter-balance to the natural inhibitions that develop with age.

Sandseter and fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, argue in the Evolutionary Psychology journal that “our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children”. In other words, by protecting our children from small bumps while they are young, we are exposing them to the risk of major injury when they are older.

What do we think?

Evolution has gifted us with many important attributes that have served us well over the millennia. The sensation of pain is a good example, as is the willpower to ignore it. Disappointment helps us mature, self-conviction lets us hope. The instinctive fear of danger keeps us safe, while curiosity permits us to disregard our fear and discover new things.

By intervening in the natural order of these counter-balanced abilities, by removing risk or disappointment or pain from our children’s experience, we simultaneously inhibit their development of willpower, hope and curiosity.

This statement is as true for our cities as it is for our playgrounds. In Australia, the commendable desire to provide equal access for all, supercharged by the intense fear of lawsuits, has seen every train platform covered in tactile indicators, every staircase in bright yellow edging, every window in warning decals. In the effort to make our cities safer, we are simultaneously making us less capable of handling risk.

What should we learn?

Our trip last year through Europe offered anecdotal proof of the unintended consequences of city sanitisation. For the first few weeks of our travels, I found myself tripping over footpaths, stairs and changes in level on a daily basis. It struck me as odd, given I am not normally so prone to such accidents. Then I noticed none of the footpaths, stairs and changes in level had fluorescent yellow strips plastered along their edges. To my mild horror, I realised that Melbourne had in fact blunted my ability to detect tripping hazards. Melbourne had ruined me for other cities.

Risk is an inevitable, natural and even desirable part of life – only by facing and surmounting risk can there be reward. It is the task of playgrounds to help introduce our children to controlled risk and begin their self-education in its management. It is the task of cities to continue this self-education into our adult, civilised lives.

2 thoughts on “Safe enough or too safe?

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  1. For those interested in some further reading on the topic, I suggest you check out this excellent article by James Trainor for Cabinet Magazine. It cites the New York Times research and teases out some fascinating historical detail on the rise of the playscape in New York during the 1960s

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