Risk - KaBOOM! News

At Stratford Landing Elementary School in Fairfax, Va., a nearly new playground sits wrapped in caution tape. It represents a struggle between a PTA, which raised $35,000 from silent auctions and bake sales to purchase and install the playground equipment, and school officials, who have deemed the play equipment too dangerous and are ordering its removal.

‘Too dangerous’ means that the equipment doesn’t meet the school district’s established safety standards. Though parents may be tempted to vilify the Fairfax County Public School administrators—who are offering the school $135,000 to replace the equipment—the administrators are hardly to blame for following their own protocol. Instead of pointing fingers, let’s shift the conversation. Instead of advocating for exceptions to the rule, let’s reexamine the rules.

The reams of caution tape at Stratford Landing serve as a potent symbol of a generation of kids who are missing out on vital opportunities to push and challenge themselves. Says eight-year-old Kes Shallbetter of the play equipment she barely got to play on: “I was upset because it was fun… It was exciting to have a new piece at the playground because the old pieces I got so bored at.”

It’s a shame that $35,000 of hard-earned PTA money may go to waste, but the much larger shame is that even with a $135,000 investment from the county, Kes may once again find herself bored during recess. And she isn’t the only one. Our playgrounds are failing to engage our country’s eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds, pushing them to the sidelines at a time in their lives when they should be pushing themselves to climb higher.

A playground that challenges children not only keeps them active for longer, but it also motivates them to think creatively when they encounter obstacles and experiment with potential solutions. In other words, it prepares them to be healthy, innovative, successful adults who can navigate an increasingly complex and connected world.

The real question here is not: How can we save the equipment at Stratford Landing? The real question is: How can we save our children’s childhoods and futures—in Fairfax and beyond?

UPDATE: Though we must continue to ask ourselves how we can ensure that children across the country have access to challenging play equipment, we are happy to report that according to The Washington Post, "A dispute over a Fairfax County elementary school playground structure has been resolved after a school district official announced Wednesday that the equipment would no longer be off-limits to students."

Children flocked to the new playground equipment before it was slated for removal and wrapped in caution tape. Photos courtesy of the Stratford Landing PTA, via The Patch.

Salt Lake County’s Evergreen Park is building an electronic playground set that includes blinking lights and an LED controller.

By simulating the video game experience on the playground, Danish playground equipment manufacturer Kompan is hoping to lure kids outdoors who would otherwise be hooked into game systems on the couch.

Bob Ross, president of Salt Lake City-based Play Space Designs, told the Salt Lake City Tribune, "These are physically challenging games, and that’s what appeals to the older kids. And that’s the challenge — to get older kids back to the playgrounds."

We agree that something needs to be done to get older kids to playgrounds, particularly in a day and age when playground equipment is so "safe" (read: boring) that it holds little appeal for children older than seven. But are "video-game-like" playgrounds the way to go?

We're not so sure. While outdoor physical activity for children is necessary and good, it's even better when accompanied by a healthy dose of imagination. Beloved playground structures like slides, monkey bars, and swings invite children to make up their own games as they scamper, run, and climb. An electronic game, on the other hand, encourages a prescribed set of motions toward a prescribed set of goals.

Kids play enough video games at home. Instead of simulating the experience on the playground, can we find more imaginative ways to engage them by re-introducing elements of risk and whimsy on the playground?

Yay or nay? What do you think about electronic playground equipment?


Friends in play, we are gathered here today to mourn the imminent passing of three dearly beloved playground slides. As longtime residents of Union Grove, Wis., these slides have brought joy to countless children who have reveled in their thrillingly tall ladders and periliously long snouts.

Alas, tomorrow's children will never enjoy such singular pleasures. In the name of safety (and, ahem, liability), the insurance company of Union Grove is seeing to it that our eccentric, rickety friends meet their demise.

Though not everyone is mourning the passing of our dearly beloved slides, even they admit that "kids are going to be sad." As are we. Not just for the children of Union Grove but for children the world over who are forced to contend with shorter, stouter, yawn-inducing slides. Tall slides of Union Grove, and tall slides everywhere, you will be dearly missed. Friends in play, we invite you to pay your respects in the "Comments" section below.


Maurice Sendak once said, "Children are tough, though we tend to think of them as fragile. They have to be tough. Childhood is not easy." He gave kids a lot more credit than we tend to these days, respecting both their resilience and their imaginations.

Many of today's playgrounds do neither, lacking both whimsy and risk. After receiving the Caldecott medal in 1964, Sendak said, "...it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming wild things."

In honor of Sendak, here are some of our favorite "wild playgrounds":

Check out our related post, Our favorite dangerous playgrounds.

For more inspiration, visit our Wacky & Wild Playgrounds Pinterest Board.

Want to pay tribute to Maurice Sendak? Earn your very own Maurice Sendak Tribute Badge by signing into our brand new Map of Play. By taking action for play now, you can help fuel children's imaginations for generations to come!

Are today's "safe" playgrounds really any safer?

In honor of National Playground Safety Week, we present our favorite "dangerous" playgrounds--that is, playgrounds that make no secret of the risks they present. Interestingly, the perception that a playground is "safe" may cause children (and parents) to act carelessly, potentially leading to injury. By contrast, when risks are obvious, children are likely to proceed more cautiously.

Knowing that the injury rates on Adventure Playgrounds, which are depicted in some of the following slides, are not substantively different from those on "standard" playgrounds, we have to ask ourselves: Which hurt our children more? Playgrounds that bore them, or playgrounds that challenge and engage?

For more on risk and play, read our CEO Darell Hammond's Huffington Post piece, "Dangerous Playgrounds Are Good for Your Children." For more mouthwatering photos, see our Dangerous Playgrounds Pinterest board.

Would you let your children build this? We stumbled across this amazing photo on the blog, Mama's Minutia. Says Jennifer Jo, the author and mother of the children pictured:

"There is a shift that takes place when your kids gain the skills to construct monumental forts that reach truly frightening heights. I’m not exactly sure what to do with their newfound ability to threaten their physical well-being."

For more photos and the wonderful story behind this homemade jungle gym, including its eventual demise, read the full post, "rise and fall."

We recently received this note from Bridget, a concerned parent who is having a hard time finding playgrounds that stimulate and challenge her 10- and 11-year-old children. We're hoping our readers can help her out! Here's Bridget:

I came across your website and blog via a link from our kids' school. They are raising money to build a new playground to replace the old playground.

And I'm worried.

I'm worried because every single playground renovation in our town so far has taken a playground that was fun for lots of kids and replaced it with a boring, plain vanilla metal structure that is uninteresting for anyone older than seven. My kids are 10 and 11 and they are extremely upset that the really cool wooden structure is coming down, because "they're just going to replace it with another stupid tot lot" (their words).

I would love to get involved with the playground renovation, but I refuse to donate money to an enterprise that is going to put up a boring metal structure. A different parents' group in town did this a few years ago -- raised money for a playground that was supposed to be designed for older kids. When it finally arrived, it was apparent that their idea of "older kids" was maybe five year olds. My kids went to the new playground (and they were about seven or eight at the time) and basically said, "That's it? What a rip off!"

Do you have resources that one could point the committee to say, "This is a good structure for kids older than seven?" Also, is there any reason why the really awesome wooden playgrounds don't get built anymore? They're always the best, but they seem to be a rapidly vanishing species. When the really great one in the center of our town came down (mostly due to paranoid parents calling it dangerous because kids occasionally got splinters) my kids basically stopped going to playgrounds because there is nothing to do there -- "the structures are for babies!"

I really want to fight this trend. What can I do?

Do you have advice for Bridget?

Photo by theloushe (cc).

Would you let your kid climb a tree? What about jump off a roof?

Over the weekend, in light of our recent conversation about risk aversion, we asked our Twitter followers and Facebook fans about their favorite “dangerous” playtime activities growing up. There was a lot of gleeful jumping, climbing, and (almost) falling involved. Here's just a sampling:

We didn't just hang upside down on the monkey bars, we used to play "tag" and run across them like it was nothing. I don't think I could even step on one of them today - amazing how fearless children are!
- Stacy Towers via Facebook

Jumping roofs! Dangerous but fun. We jumped from house to house. In LA, they are built very close.
- @1AKA_VS via Twitter

Jumping off the roof of a ranch house garage into a pile of leaves.
- Eva Spera-Gauthier via Facebook

Um... climbing high into trees and jumping down... (we thought we could fly!). 
- @hipmamasociety via Twitter

Falling out of trees. Luckily I was a bouncy kid.
- @WayfarerGlyn via Twitter

Riding my brother's bike down the hill. It was too big for me. I couldn't reach the pedals. I had to get off by riding onto the grass and going in a slow circle until it fell down.
- Deb Rennie via Facebook

Walking the rail on the railroad tracks. Who knew we were developing and training balance. We were having FUN!
- Youth Fitness Guy via Facebook

Running the gauntlet through the swings that my friends were swinging on. The best part of it was *almost* getting kicked, narrowly escaping!
- Kasia Swatek Kramer via Facebook

Playing with fire.
- @helainebecker via Twitter

Biking down the long, steep hill in front of my house (age 6), no hands, no feet, no helmet and screaming my head off in glee.
- Move with Me Action Adventures via Facebook

What was your favorite "dangerous" playtime activity growing up?

Photo by Mitchio (cc).

This story originally appeared in the Altruim Institute’s Health Policy Forum and has been adapted for kaboom.org.

Ever since the arrival of my daughter, my ears have been primed to pick up on the conversations and behaviors other parents are modeling for their children. Lately, it feels like more and more of these conversations are geared toward coaxing children away from taking risks. There are the well-known fears to which many a parent can speak to: gangs, drugs, perilous streets, and so forth. Yet, it seems as if we are moving in the direction of proclaiming things fearful that past generations simply considered a part of growing up. Riding a bike to school, swinging to soaring heights only to jump off, and even roaming the neighborhood with a group of friends have been traded for the “safety” of our children.

Earlier this month I came across a blog titled “An Itemized Tour of the Most Terrifying Playground in the World. EVERYBODY PANIC!!!”. The author takes readers through a point-by-point list of, as she states, “the stressful aspects of this park that brought out the neurotic parent in me.” While sympathetic I was mostly troubled by this post.

In addition to the playground elements that cause “stress” in parents, there is an underlying fear that our children will be hurt, abducted, or meet some other undesirable fate while on the playground. As an advocate for playgrounds and outdoor play in general, it is alarming to see the number of people who agree that playspaces should be made less risky. Nobody wants anybody’s child to get hurt, but if we are always there to catch our children before they fall, they will never learn to brace themselves for the impact. This is as true for the tumbles they will take on the playground, as it is for the ones that await them as adults.

The media has contributed significantly to the cultural shift in our perception of risk. As a colleague so aptly says, “It is difficult enough being a parent, you are literally responsible for someone else’s life. When you couple that responsibility with the fear created by the media, it is easy to see why more parents are becoming risk-averse.”

There has also been a shift toward increased structured enrichment activities for children. We are living in a society where we feel as if we are doing wrong by our children if we don’t fill every opportunity with a “life-enhancing experience.”

These activities often come with predefined rules and expected outcomes that further limit children’s ability to take risks. It is in our attempts to protect and raise children ready to tackle the 21st century that we have inadvertently taken away one of the best learning opportunities: space for children to challenge themselves, take risks, and acquire vital problem-solving skills. The need for constant protection of our children speaks to our society’s inability to simply let our children fail at anything, no matter how trivial.

It is inevitable that children will encounter obstacles in life. It is through risk taking that children develop the capacity to think creatively and develop solutions. Those obstacles and risks begin on the playground.

"Calculate the medical damage, and let them fall. How else are they going to learn balance?"

So asserted Julia Steiny, a columnist for Education News, at a recent community discussion on "Kids, Play, and Risk" at the Providence Children’s Museum. Though some parents might bristle at Julia's suggestion, she’s right.

When we don't allow children to take acceptable risks in their play, we take away crucial learning opportunities. Risk teaches them how to fail and try again, test their limits and boundaries, become resilient and acquire coping skills, interact in groups, and negotiate rules amongst themselves.

Would you let your child do this?

Or this?

Why are kids taking fewer risks? Three culprits named in the discussion were increasing liability concerns, heightened perceptions of risk that lead to “helicopter” parenting, and fewer “eyes on the street.”

The benefits of risk are something to think about, particularly when confronting stories of schools banning running at recess, towns outlawing tree-climbing or fort-building, health departments issuing warnings on classic children’s games, or even grappling with our own inclinations to intervene immediately when we see children rough-housing.

Maybe we should turn to mother Angelica Almlid Barrows, whose children attended an outdoor preschool in Norway and were exposed to a natural environment that provided for acceptable risk. Angelica said, "perhaps because of these experiences, my kids are rarely bored and take on mental and physical challenges – learning a new skill is something they have patience with, and confidence they will succeed."

Do you let your kids take risks? How would you define an "acceptable" risk?

For more on the community conversation and the benefits of risk-taking, visit the Providence Children’s Museum’s blog.