By Tim Gill
Historically, playgrounds grew out of concerns about the living conditions of working families in the wake of the industrial revolution. As cities expanded, it was argued that children’s habitual places for play – the streets – were becoming too dangerous (especially with the growth of motor traffic). Playgrounds were a kind of compensation to children for the loss of their preferred play places (and arguably also a justification for giving streets over to vehicles).
In truth, few playgrounds have fulfilled their promise as compensatory places for play, thanks to adult indifference to children’s views and inclinations. However, for much of the 20th century, this failure did not matter too much to most children, who had ample freedom to play in their wider neighbourhoods.
Across the industrialised world, children’s freedom to play is in long-term decline.
Today, things are different. Across the industrialised world, children’s freedom to play is in long-term decline. Their lives are increasingly constrained: by traffic growth, academic pressures and adult anxieties. Psychologist and play advocate Peter Gray talks of a ‘helicopter society’. The fact that teenage mental health problems are growing alongside childhood obesity is no surprise to him, or to me.
Despite these changes in the world around them, children’s appetite for exploration, stimulation and everyday adventure remains as strong as ever. This appetite can be met, with the right playground ingredients. For my money, the vital ingredients are risk and challenge, as part of a variety of offers that appeal to children of all abilities, backgrounds and ages – including teenagers, who tend to have a greater appetite for adventure and whose needs are often forgotten [10 features teens want to see].
The popularity of adventurous places like the Tumbling Bay playground in London’s Olympic Park, or Lizard Log in Sydney, shows that children and families can be persuaded to come out and play in genuinely challenging play spaces in large numbers. They also give the lie to the idea that all parents these days are super-protective. But many more play spaces continue to disappoint, and to fail.
Playgrounds are in part a kind of invitation or calling card: a collection of structures, objects, and signs that says to children, ‘come and play here!’ For that invitation to be accepted, playgrounds have to be more attractive than competing offers and invitations.
This is why the move away from sterile, unchallenging, identikit play areas is so important. Nothing can be more dispiriting than hearing a child saying the dread sentence, “this is boring!” As the offers from the global tech and entertainment giants become ever more sophisticated and beguiling, those of us involved in making different offers need to up our game. A few bits of primary-coloured steel and plastic scattered across a spongy flat surface no longer cuts the mustard.
Evidence is growing that giving children the opportunity to take some risks – even if this leads to the occasional mishap - helps them to keep healthy and active.
This need to up our game is why my work has focused on the preoccupation with playground safety, and what I call in my book, No Fear, the ‘zero risk’ mindset. Evidence is growing that giving children the opportunity to take some risks – even if this leads to the occasional mishap - helps them to keep healthy and active [What is the relationship between risky outdoor play and health in children?]. Little wonder that some leading accident prevention experts are now saying that playground safety has gone too far.
The good news is that the climate around playground safety appears to be changing for the better around the world. In the UK the value of risk and challenge is widely recognised, as part of a balanced approach to play safety. It is a move that is supported by pretty much everyone, including the UK government’s own health and safety regulators – and it is spreading as far afield as Australia. Even in the US, where the legal context is undeniably more challenging, there are positive signs – most recently in the rejection of a proposal that could have led to hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on unnecessary playground surfacing.
If we are to do justice to children’s playful impulses – risk and challenge are the vital ingredients of a 21st century playground.
Playgrounds are still needed today, arguably more than ever. We just have to try that much harder to make them attractive to children. Playing is all about engaging with uncertainty: about moving from what is known and familiar – and thus boring – to what is novel, unfamiliar and engaging. This is why - if we are to do justice to children’s playful impulses – risk and challenge are the vital ingredients of a 21st century playground.
Tim Gill is an independent researcher, writer and consultant. His work focuses on the changing nature of childhood, and aims to have a positive impact on children’s everyday lives. He has written widely on risk and play, and is in demand around the world as a public speaker and workshop facilitator. His website is www.rethinkingchildhood.com.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Community Design Collaborative.