Can a Playground Be Too Safe?

Just when you thought the jungle gym was a deathtrap...

For a few years now, anti-minivan hipster parent-bloggers have been trying to make "bad parenting" cool. Psychologist Lori Gottlieb just published a big article in The Atlantic about how overprotective parents are raising coddled children incapable of handling adult responsibilities. But I wasn't convinced this anti-safety-latch movement was more than just an amusing fad. I assumed that a few high profile, free range sharp-stick-in-the-eye lawsuits would set things back on the safe and sanitary path.

Then the New York Times runs this story about research from a Norwegian psychologist that suggests that safety-first playground designs may actually be harmful for children. 

A Norwegian?! This is news. Maybe bad parenting is here to stay.

Norwegians are serious about public safety and social welfare (and everything else). Their laws protecting children make progressives on this side of the Atlantic weak in the knees. So when a Norwegian psychologist suggests we might be overdoing it on child safety, you know Shakespeare was right--something is indeed rotten in the state of Denmark. (According to the Norwegians, everything is rotten in Denmark, but that's another story.) 

Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway, posits that while boo-boo-free playground designs may result in fewer physical injuries, they also "may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone." Risky play, she argues, "mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety."  

I think she means that falling off things as a kid is good for you, toughens you up.  

This might come as disappointing news to parents and experts in the spongy-mat camp. But don't slink off just yet, safety-bar sentinels; I don't think this is quite the defeat you fear. 

First, remember the source. Norwegians are a fairly well-behaved people. Sure, history shows that, left unsupervised, young Norsemen can raise a bit of a ruckus. "Look det, Agnar! Coastal Saxon fillage! Ha ha, flaming arrow make funny, ja?" But I think we should take this study with a grain of salt. A Norwegian academic's definition of risky play wouldn't raise an eyebrow among, say, any mom who raised boys prior to the Clinton administration. I think Dr. Sandseter is talking about monkey bars that are eight feet high instead of six--not throwing stars and train trestles. 

Second, big talk aside, the bumps-and-bruises movement doesn't really represent a major shift in priorities from the safety-first camp.

What are the coddlers trying to protect their children against when they shield them from unnecessary obstacles and trauma? Growing into anxious adults with low self-esteem. 

What are the pro-falling Norwegian psychologists concerned with? Preventing children from...growing into anxious adults with low-self esteem.  

So rest assured, the soft, pleasant future of Western Civilization as we know it is safe. It's still all about raising kids to be happy, well-adjusted adults. Now we're just haggling over scars.

The only thing that's really changed is the emergence of a new entrepreneurial opportunity. You can get in on the ground floor with me if you're smart. I'm starting my own line of playground equipment. Calling them Treez. Here's my prototype:  

IMG 0244

Copyright 2013 Paul J. Rasmussen