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Experts suggest playgrounds can be too safe for kids

| Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

As slow rides, low slides and lots of padding have become the norm at playgrounds around the country, some say the swing to overly safe environments is actually hurting children.

A panel of experts on playgrounds, urbanism, childhood education and government will discuss the issue at “Playing It (Too) Safe: Play, Playgrounds and the Value of Risk,” from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 13 at Carnegie Museum of Art.

“A playground must offer challenges to all ages, from 2 to 12,” says Gabriela Burkhalter, curator of “The Playground Project,” part of the 2013 Carnegie International. The exhibit presents some of the most influential playgrounds from around the world.

Burkhalter will join Susan Solomon, historian and author of “American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space”; Wendy Nilsson, executive director of Partnership for Providence Parks; Michelle Figlar, executive director of The Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children; a representative from Mayor Bill Peduto's office; and moderator Bill Isler, president of The Fred Rogers Co.

The transition from playgrounds with towering metal monkey bars to those completely covered in padding started in the 1970s, Solomon says. Increased concern about liability contributed to the change, as did parent anxiety.

“Sometimes you see more parents on the equipment than the kids,” Solomon says.

Those environments discourage creative play, which can help children develop important skills, Solomon says.

“Current playgrounds are largely directional and the outcomes are clear,” says Solomon. “The kid goes up, the kid goes down, the kid goes across, then does it all over again. Nothing gets altered.”

Instead, playgrounds should provide “appropriate risk” to help children assess, confront and learn from unpredictable situations, she says.

“We're not talking about kids jumping from buildings,” Solomon says. “It's important to define the risk as manageable, not scary.”

Examples include bucket swings, which can fit several riders and travel quickly, she says. Another is sand. At one time a staple of most playgrounds, it has largely disappeared from contemporary spaces.

“If you use the right sand and commit to a certain amount of maintenance, it can be a better surface to fall on and something to do that's never the same,” she says.

Solomon describes a park near her home as an example of a playground with appropriate risk. It's surrounded by boulders, recycled from a construction site. She once watched as a 2-year-old child realized she couldn't get down from the boulders while carrying her pail and shovel. She tossed her toys down into the sand, then lowered herself in after.

“She made an assessment, realized the danger and came up with a solution,” Solomon says.

Research shows that even with increased safety, playgrounds can still result in injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control, U.S. emergency departments treat more than 200,000 children ages 14 and younger for playground-related injuries a year. About 45 percent are severe — fractures, internal injuries, concussions, dislocations and amputations.

But taking overly extreme precautions can devalue any play experience a child might have, says Burkhalter.

“Everything is shrunk to small size so that there is no danger, but also not much imagination possible,” she says. “Children are under constant control, because parents don't let them play alone even on ‘super' safe playgrounds. Fear is omnipresent, and there is no mental space to let things happen, and children don't have to assume responsibility.”

The lack of those risks has decreased the value of playgrounds as public gathering spaces, Burkhalter says.

“Parents would go there with their small children, but older children don't go there anymore,” she says.

“Playgrounds function as a gathering place for parents with young children,” Burkhalter says. Although older children gather on fields for soccer or baseball, places for the in-betweens are lacking, she says. “So, there are strong incentives to stay home and play on electronic devices.”

Designing parks that are ideal for individual communities takes collaboration between residents, government and design professionals, Nilsson says. Her group serves as a resource for communities interested in creating and maintaining public parks.

“The best parks are those that have a resident contingency who can serve as the eyes and the ears of the park,” she says.

Collaboration also results in parks that are more than just cookie-cutter designs, she says.

“It's not about a parks department putting in a piece of equipment,” Nilsson says. “What you want is a space that feels like it reflects the identity of your community.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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