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Safer is Better...Right? How could anyone argue that making the world safer for children is not a good idea? For more than two decades, very well intentioned people, me included, have worked hard to make playgrounds safer for kids. First the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (USCPSC) issued guidelines for playground safety, including equipment design, manufacture and layout; followed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) release of their own standards. Today across the nation, an army of playground safety inspectors, trained and certified by the National Parks and Recreation Society, audit playgrounds to insure that they are compliant to these guidelines and standards. There is even a certification created by the International Playground Equipment Manufacturer's Association (IPEMA), foundedin a large part to provide independent verification of ASTM compliance. Here in California, we have adopted many of these measures as state law. Several other states have or are considering similar requirements. Everywhere the pressure of liability exposure from noncompliant playgrounds is forcing playground renovation at a dizzying pace. Recent surveys have shown that, while there are still many sites that have not been upgraded, there has been substantial change toward meeting the requirements. As a result of all this effort and expense, are playgrounds safer? Well, from the accident statistics, one might conclude that they are not. According to the USCPSC, we have roughly the same rate of injury as before this process began. This surprising statistic may arise because today's parents may have a greater likelihood of bringing their children to the hospital when an injury occurs. These injuries are subsequently recorded by improved accident tracking programs such as NEISS, meaning the actual injury rate may have declined, but we are counting more of them. Or perhaps not. No one knows for sure, but the lack of clarity strongly suggests that all this effort, time and money have not resulted in dramatic change. One can't help but wonder if all our good intentions to make play safe aren't in some ways counter-productive. Folks who study child development will tell you that kids play up to the point of failure. Watch a baby learn to walk, they fall and fall until they get it right. They learn more through failure than success, and that actions can have consequences -- good and bad. This being true, what we see is kids who do not have an understanding of consequences using the modern "safe" playgrounds in "unsafe" ways, like running up the slide or sitting on a safety rail, as a natural expression of their drive to learn and grow. Many would agree that kids need challenges, but playground owners and municipal risk managers don't want chances taken on their property. However, this trend means much more than just boring parks. The same standards that have been developed specifically for public unsupervised playgrounds accessible to all ages are now being applied to small daycare programs and churches, a total different setting and risk exposure. Across the nation, these lovingly created and maintained playscapes created for specific age groups in well-supervised learning environments are being converted to the same cookie cutter generic structures that aren't working all that great in parks. Many of our children are being deprived of the complexity and challenge they need to grow up with the fundamental physical skills needed for a full and healthy life. Could this be a contributing factor to the dramatic rise in juvenile obesity and associated diseases so much in the news these days? One can only wonder. Play for All is Good Too...Right? Throughout my career, I've advocated that all children have a right to play, and parents have a right to join them, and that barriers of all sorts should be removed. Over the past decade the Access Board has labored to bring a standard to achieve this goal into reality. While it still remains a proposed standard, most designers and owners try to abide by the recommendations that have been developed. The resultant playgrounds built to the ADA guidelines have, for the most part, been underwhelming. By far, the greatest impact of the standard is that 50 percent of the play activities must be accessible from the ground. This sounds reasonable until one realizes that there are only a handful of play events that occur at grade level. This means that the overall play setting must be small in order to meet the 50 percent criteria. If it is large, then the same events show up at almost all playgrounds over and over again. In addition, events that are fun up on a deck are also placed a ground level, which creates a sort of "separate but equal" situation. Certainly manufacturers may begin to develop new ground level play events, but they have been remarkably slow in getting up to speed to date after over a decade of acknowledging the need for accessible play. The other side of this issue is that an accessible path of travel to the events is required. Up to now, engineered wood fiber (EWF) has been considered accessible. However, here in California many from the accessibility community do not agree with this, as they find the small turning wheels on chairs tend to dive into the EWF and that walkers are all but unusable. Indeed, the California state architect agrees with this assessment and has recently decreed that no state funds can be used on playground projects that use EWF as the path of travel. Since the only other option for access is by rubber mat, this means the cost of these projects will increase at least 50 percent due to the inclusion of this material, or the overall project will become smaller as more of the budget is used for surfacing. Same old, same old The combination of the safety and access requirements has resulted in many of the new playgrounds being disengaging to children. A recent television news story on playgrounds featured interviews with many parents who lamented the sameness and lack of challenge of today's play areas while experts in children's play expressed dismay that children's experiences are being curtailed and limited in the name of safety. It seems that everyone's hard work and good intentions have not brought about totally positive outcomes. Is the cause of ever increasing safety regulation--regulations that may not be making a significant difference in the rate of injuries, yet diminishes the challenge, complexity and interest of play--worth a generation fraught with serious health problems such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure? Does it really matter how accessible a playground is if it is so uninspiring that kids don't want to play there? My work started in the 1960s during a period when we were making "creative" and "adventure" playgrounds. In retrospect, this was the golden age of playground design. Scores of landscape architects created hundreds of unique and memorable play settings. Today, many have been torn down in the name of risk management and compliance. Yet in countries where these types of playgrounds have been allowed to remain due to a reduced fear of lawsuits, they continue to inspire and engage children in an environment that is as safe as many of today's generic play structures. In this context, it is interesting to consider the rapid growth in the popularity of skateparks where children propel themselves to great heights at fantastic speed and where a failure results in an impact onto a very hard surface. This is a total antithesis of today's over-safe playground, but the accident rate is still remarkably low. How can this be? Could it be due to the fact that the kids are learning incrementally and have gained the ability to measure their risks? Perhaps it is time to step back from the myopic vision of the modern playground paradigm and consider the broader consequences of our actions. Should we come to our senses and begin to create much more challenging playgrounds, they will still be the safest places for children to spend time and they will also develop the skills and abilities that will help keep them active and fit lifelong.

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August 17, 2019, 10:58 am PDT

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