"Design is not the ultimate goal. It's the vehicle by which the ultimate goal is play."
—Paul Friedberg, landscape architect and play designer
The call went out starting last fall: "The Playground Committee needs your input! We're considering redesign options for the school playground to make it safer and more functional."
Is it bad that my first thought was, Please don't make it too safe?
I'm not campaigning for kids' injuries. I'm a mother: I want to shield my kids from physical pain, emotional scarring and mortality as much as the next parent. Sometimes, knowing I can't do this is harder to admit than knowing I shouldn't.
It's nostalgia-in-action to know I can't keep my kids small and safe forever. But allowing them a degree of risky play feels proactive, because encouraging my children to take reasonable risks will help them grow into more confident and creative adults.
"Children love to see how high they can climb on a ladder, a tree, or a jungle gym. Over time they see their abilities grow, and they become ever more confident about stretching their boundaries and taking appropriate chances," writes Joan Almon in her introduction to Adventure: The Value of Risk in Children's Play. "They also learn about their limits and consequences of going too far beyond their limits. As they grow older they apply these lessons in a variety of real life situations."
Kids who do things that feel—to them—slightly dangerous generally rise to the challenge. In so doing, they learn to gauge risk, figure out how to negotiate it and experience accomplishment and pride when they do. This makes them safer.
"Opportunity to master increasingly challenging play is essential for safety in play," writes Almon. Joe Frost, a University of Texas education and child-development professor, says, "Evidence that engaging in reasonable risks and mastering physical challenges through early, consistent practice on developmentally appropriate playgrounds helps children develop cognitive and physical skills needed to avoid serious injuries."
What I want to suggest to the Playground Committee is that it considers the benefits of risk, not just risk management/minimization. I may—or may not—be alone here.
Somewhere between the buzz of helicopter parenting and lawsuits, the crush of maxed-out teachers and limited resources, and zooming screen time and obesity rates, there is the school playground. What is its role?
“Playgrounds are for playing, so you can have recess and get exercise and have fresh air,” says 7-year-old Theo. “It gives you a break from work.” He prioritizes space to run around and play spies.
“We have playgrounds so recess will be more fun,” says a friend.
Her mother finds school playgrounds valuable because “there are so many rules for kids in school, the playground is the one place where the kids know it’s their own place and can have unstructured play.”
“And you can go down the slides if they have any,” quips 4-year-old Sylvia, who actually prefers climbing up slides.
In the best playgrounds, according to Frost, “children are in movement and can take an active role in building their own environment, learn to take risks, develop aesthetic appreciation, strategize, mimic adult roles, practice new skills and make mistakes.”
Frost has been a childhood-play advocate for decades, consultant to hundreds of law firms in playground injury cases and a force in American playground design and thought. I wonder what he'd make of my kids' recess space.
Children are moving everywhere, swinging and climbing on bright play structures. The boys throwing a football narrowly miss the smaller kids and are somehow not tripping or cracking their heads on the raised concrete runway that links the school building to the far-side basketball courts and bus loop.
This concrete feature—plus the low concrete curbs and river cobbles that divide the mulched playground from the dirt surround—looms large in the list of complaints collected by parent and Playground Committee leader Terry Tiner. A teacher for 25 years, Tiner is no fan of our school's small dirt, wood chip and concrete playground.
"My primary concerns are a lack of area for the kids to move around, the safety issues of the playground equipment surrounded by a low concrete wall and there's nothing green here," Tiner says.
These concerns are echoed by parents, staff and principal Kim Pietrocci, although given the school's relatively recent remodel, the playground isn't likely to be redone anytime soon. Still, Tiner thinks inexpensive tweaks could go far.
With the right organizing, planning and outside fundraising, this is likely true. Removing or rerouting head-cracking concrete corners and adding wood chips or edge-softening rubber, for example, may be quick fixes. Certainly, some river cobbles could be moved so that wheelchair-using kids and less stable walkers could access the lovely, cottonwood-shaded picnic tables, where guardians wait after school and outdoor classes can be held.
But some of adults' fears and recommendations directly oppose what kids are drawn to—and what Frost, Almon and others recommend. Far too often, broad overreactions trump site-specific finesse.
Those access-barring river cobbles are discriminatory and dangerous in one place, but they shouldn't be removed entirely—as Tiner says several parents have suggested. Kids like to balance on them and pretend they're crossing a lava field or a river; they use them for stepping-stones when rain creates huge puddles and turn them into fantasy-game boundaries.
Similar cobbles define a drainage swale behind a sweep of juniper bushes. Theo and his cohorts log serious quality playtime there, moving them around bushes and trees.
"You can make cool forts with the rocks, and it makes your arms stronger," Theo says. "We make fire rings and dams, and then we take them apart to make the river flow." I've watched them do all of this—kid-directed play demanding collaborative strategizing, creativity, engineering and active interaction with their environment.
Principal Pietrocci is glad her playground has equipment-free areas fostering creative play, but she prefers students not move the rocks, since they're part of the landscaping. This brings up interesting questions: What's the difference? Do we have to distinguish between them if play and landscaping features occupy the same space? What's lost in separating them?
During recesses, rock moving isn't allowed. "They think you're going to get dirty and get hurt," Theo says. "They say, 'Don't run!' because they think you'll get hurt, too."
Tiner says some parents suggested removing the juniper bushes because they interfere with safety and visibility. Others want more plants. "Natural vegetation would be helpful, so it feels more like a park," one mother said. "As it is, there aren't any natural structures integrated with the play structures."
I observe kids playing with natural features after school, when parents of lingering kids are more in charge, and I love it. I don't interfere with rock moving or mud-and-water play. I just take a step closer when Theo climbs a tree to retrieve a paper airplane. These are playground skills endorsed by many play advocates, particularly those in the "adventure playground" movement.
Proposed by a Danish landscape architect in the 1930s, adventure playgrounds gained traction in England after World War II. Hanna Rosin's Atlantic article, "The Overprotected Kid," features a playground in Wales known as "the Land." Amy Fusselman's recent Savage Park—A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die documents time spent in Tokyo's Hanegi Playpark.
Adventure playgrounds aren't common in the US. They were tried and quickly dismantled in the 1970s; only a handful remain. According to Frost, "The lifespan for most American adventure playgrounds was short, due to concerns about junky appearance, expansion of safety regulations, fear of injury and liability, shortage of funding and play leaders, and lack of support from community leaders."
This is unsurprising, especially given recent uproars about kids walking home alone and the fact that basic, pre-1990 parenting styles ("free-range parenting") are now marginalized as edgy. I try to imagine an adventure playground connected to my kids' school—or any school. I want to, but my mind comes up with a hundred reasons why this won't work. It seems impossible.
In Savage Park, Fusselman watches her sons and thinks "how hungry my boys always seemed in their play for moments when their actions would take on real gravity, and how seldom in my parenting of them I took this hunger into consideration. It was as if the things they hungered for were so impossible to satisfy—no, we can't have an airliner for lunch today—that I just had to dismiss their desires entirely."
I wonder how much this happens—how often we don't give credence to our kids' fantastic ideas because the fantastical parts are so wild. I wonder how many playground-planning committees ever involve children.
Frost quotes playground designer, builder, professor, consultant and safety inspector Paul Hogan: "For a playground to succeed, its ultimate users must be its builders." This seems obvious, once stated. But formal playgrounds are designed by adults, who have many different interests.
"When it comes to play and playground design, we tend not to be honest about the…most important question to be asked: 'Who is the client?'" writes playground designer Jay Beckwith in Playground Magazine. "The answer of what is a good playground design is VERY different depending on which of these constituents [the manufacturer, the park director, the risk manager, the maintenance crew, e.g.] is the real client."
Playground planning is complicated, perhaps especially within school systems. "Designing and building a playground is a collective effort. There are layers and layers and layers," says Kristy Janda Wagner, executive director of operations for Santa Fe Public Schools. The pre-construction process for a new playground starts about six months in advance and goes something like this:
1. Building architects establish playground siting.
2. Construction management team approves playground siting and feasibility.
3. Engineering and groundwork crews address groundcover, design and layout issues.
4. Play-equipment vendors propose structures for competitive review by district-contracted installers and maintenance directors.
5. Site-based educators choose their preferred equipment and layout, considering their students, staff and community.
6. A playground auditor reviews safety issues and compliance, American Disabilities Act (ADA) access and age appropriateness. The auditor will review playground after installation, too.
7. Insurance company representatives may review plans and/or built playground.
"Most people look at most issues from a one- or two-dimension approach: Do they like it? Does it work for them? A few may also think about money," Janda Wagner says. "But there are other considerations: Does it work for the space? Is it appropriate for the ages and use? Is it appropriate for the community? Is it in compliance? Then, does it fit the timeline and budget?"
In looking at a site alone, for example, Janda Wagner says that 10 acres or more is considered adequate for an SFPS elementary playground; new K-8th-grade playgrounds are 13-15 acres. For my kids' older, city-center school, the campus is just over two acres, so the playground is pretty tiny. Other SFPS elementaries have limited lot sizes, too. For space constraints and other considerations, Janda Wagner prioritizes flexibility and versatility.
"Needs shift and change, and not all playgrounds can adapt in the same ways," she says. "We need to look at different learning modalities. Some more cutting-edge equipment costs more than traditional equipment. We may be limited by traditional views of the people selecting the equipment. How do we balance that and work within the limits of the space?"
Design and implementation are different from equipment safety and surfacing assessment. Equipment safety guidelines are specific, largely governed by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission's "Public Playground Safety Handbook" and the American Society for Testing and Materials' "Standard Consumer Safety Performance Specification for Playground Equipment for Public Use."
Space design, however, can be more creative and responsive to an individual school's culture. But "playground architects or specific playground designers are rare," says Janda Wagner. This means equipment specs and construction preferences often dictate design.
Butch DeFillippo is the managing partner of Albuquerque-based PlaySafe, Inc., which provides playground audits and supervisor training for SFPS, many other NM playgrounds and clients around the country. DeFillippo focuses on playground equipment being maintained and used as intended; training monitors to be attentive and interactive; and having a surface with sufficient "impact attenuation"—i.e., the degree to which it can safely break a fall.
He thinks school playgrounds shouldn't necessarily provide the freer-form, nature-based play he arranges for his son outside of school. Not everyone wants that model; schools don't always have the funds; and, ultimately, accommodating it may better fall to families who value such play.
"One location cannot be everything to everyone," DeFillippo says. "We live in a litigious society, and sometimes parents need to find the resources they think their kids need outside of school."
I understand where he's coming from; school playgrounds hold a range of family values, risk tolerance and liabilities. But surely we can avoid recklessness and still design playgrounds that more actively engage and challenge kids.
It's critical to do this at schools, because not all families have the resources to provide their kids with the creative, stimulating, nature-based play that research suggests leads to more resilient, risk-tolerant, engaged students. Yet such students are important to our communities, regardless of the income or education levels of their families—and regardless of the fear and over-the-top lawsuits that sometimes govern kid spaces.
Our national reliance on fear, litigation, entitlement and blame indicates we value personal responsibility less and less—despite our desperate grasp for self-defining adjectives like "brave," "self-reliant," "free" and "independent." If playgrounds include reasonable risk, kids learn to deal with challenge—and responsibility and respect. Teaching our kids that injuries are avoidable and accidents are always someone else's fault, though, denies them important lessons about taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them. Maybe we should back off a bit.
The Swanson School in Aukland, New Zealand, is celebrated for its unorthodox recess stance: Get rid of the rules. A Washington Post article reported that the school's principal, Bruce McLachlan, consequently "saw more independence, improved creativity, healthy risk-taking, less falling, better coordination, and improved attention in the classroom." His recipe includes four main ingredients:
1. Space—to explore
2. Trust—that kids can play and problem-solve with minimal adult interference
3. Time—more of it, to “move their bodies, to explore, to tinker, to problem solve, to work through their emotions, and to dive deep into their imaginations” (see Mother Tongue: RECESSion)
4. Loose parts—to inspire creative play
This seems like a straightforward recipe for meaningful recess time and creative playground planning. I keep coming back to that word: creativity. It's an important value in my family, but it goes beyond that. It's a hallmark of the inquisitive, imaginative, energetic peers I want my kids to know and the engaged society I want them to live in.
According to the National Institute for Play, "At any age, play acts to retain and enhance meaningful context, and optimizes the learning process. All gifted parents, master teachers, and wise executives know this." What better environment to promote engaged, and engaging, play than a dynamic, challenging school playground?
Now, it's summer. School is out, and our kids play in more varied environments: mountains, forests, trails, pools, rivers and fields, as well as backyards, neighborhoods and parks. I'm trying to pay more attention to risks my kids seek out—and how. Summer is full of opportunities for parents to hang back more, listen, watch—and trust our kids—so we can better understand their capabilities and creativities.
And as I’m discovering what Theo, Sylvia and their cohorts like to try in different settings—logs across creeks, climbing rocks, loose parts for building, etc.—I’m making a list of ideas to offer the Playground Committee when school reconvenes.