Are our playgrounds too safe?

The local playground should set the scene for adventure, but are risk-averse design and 'cookie-cutter' equipment restricting our children's ability to fully get the most out of play? Grace Cormack investigates. 

How do we keep our kids safe in the playground? Should we supervise them or give them freedom to explore? At what point do we keep our children do we just let kids be kids? Many parents walk a fine line between allowing children free play and protecting them from harm.

Leading New Zealand’s playground debate on whether risk-averse play areas hinder children’s development is Canadian play consultant Adam Bienenstock. A recent guest speaker for the 'City is a Playspace' conference in Hamilton, Bienenstock called for children to take managed risk at play. “Playgrounds can be a place of spiritual, emotional, cognitive and physical engagement, if we let children take and assess risk as part of their play.” According to Bienenstock, “the main rule is that if it looks like a playground, it probably isn’t much fun”.

Scottish play expert Juliet Robertson shares Bienenstock’s view. During her visit last year, Robertson referred to the importance of playgrounds not being too sanitised and perfectly manicured. “Playgrounds need to include nature and natural features, including sand, water and flowers – otherwise kids are unable to take real risks or use their imagination”, she said.

Robertson recommended playgrounds include loose parts, like sticks, stones and tyres. These open-ended materials make for more imaginative play than traditional playground components, which restrict the number of ways children can use them.

Schoolyard freedom
West Auckland’s Swanson Primary School has embraced the philosophy that children can learn more from junk than they can from many modern playgrounds. Four years ago, they changed playtime rules as part of 'Project Play', a successful experiment through Auckland University of Technology and Otago University. The study aimed to determine whether improving playgrounds enhanced physical activity and reduced the prevalence of obesity and bullying among New Zealand children.

On the recommendation of a Welsh playground expert, Swanson Primary School filled a 'loose parts' pit with items of junk such as wood, tyres, an old fire hose and pipes for children to unleash their imagination.

The school then took the experiment further, abandoning playtime rules altogether. Children of all ages began playing together on bikes, scooters and skateboards. They climbed trees, played bullrush and built huts.

Playground freedom gives children the opportunity to use their imagination and creativity, according to Swanson principal, Bruce McLachlan. “What kids do in their own time, away from the control of adults, is what they have always done – play.”

“Sometimes adults think of play as just kids mucking around, but it is so much more. When play is in a varied learning environment, it teaches children about problem solving, consequences, their own capabilities and how to manage risk. Children learn how to relate to others; they learn cooperation and team work.”

McLachlan believes these experiences are just as important as traditional learning experiences in the classroom. Letting a child test themselves on a scooter during play could make them more aware of the risks when driving a vehicle in high school. McLachlan adds "We want kids to be safe, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when they should be able to fall over".

Rather than a progressive step, he sees Project Play as a return to the 1950s, before the “increasing sanitisation of the play experience reduced children’s opportunities to learn through play”.

As a result of abandoning the rules, Swanson doesn't resemble Lord of the Flies.
Children haven't engaged in anti-social behaviour. Rather than cause bedlam, students are less likely to be exposed to bullying, injuries, conflict or vandalism.
Fewer teachers were needed to supervise children on lunchtime patrol, and the timeout room was discarded.

Children have been so busy, motivated and engaged during recess that they return to class much more ready to learn. Concentration levels in the classroom have increased, making for a more pleasant teaching environment.

Playground safety
Of course, playgrounds are all fun and games until someone falls and gets seriously hurt. While childhood fall-related injuries can be seen as part of growing up, some falls cause serious injury with great social and financial costs to children, their families and the government.

Just ask Ann Weaver, director of Safekids Aotearoa, the national injury prevention service of Starship Children’s Health. Statistics gathered by Safekids are shocking: Starship’s paediatric orthopaedics admits 150 children for broken bones every month, and around Four thousand New Zealand children are hospitalised each year as the result of a fall. One of two children who die each year from a fall is four years old or younger.

Playground equipment is the leading cause of fall-related admissions to hospital, with monkey bars causing the most injuries.

Weaver applauds free play initiatives, but strongly advocates for active adult supervision: “Kids should be kids, but parents and caregivers must play their role as well. Falls that result in long-term injuries, such as severe broken bones, brain and spinal injury can limit the chances of playing sport or participating in activities later in life”.

The social cost of a serious fall is also unquantifiable, and includes disability, time off work for parents, dependence on others and reduced quality of life.

Safekids also promotes initiatives like 'Standards for playground equipment and surfacing', which are guidelines for council, preschool and school playgrounds.

Balanced designs
Safety and adventure appear as opposites, but they can coexist with the right design, according to Jude Rawcliffe, New Zealand  Recreation Association Parks and Open Spaces Project Manager.

According to Rawcliffe, research suggests taking a balanced philosophy toward play spaces so children can take managed risk. “Safety must complement learning, so children have the opportunity to explore and become self-responsible."

Rawcliffe advocates for maintaining safety standards while providing the components that provide a sense of risk and challenge. “For example, the sense of risk and challenge for a three-year-old walking along a log thirty centimetres above the ground is the same as for a six year-old doing the same activity a metre above the ground, or a ten-year-old three metres above the ground but protected by safety nets."

Playgrounds should provide children the opportunity to improve their coordination, muscle development, imagination and social skills, says Rawcliffe. They should also help them to connect with the environment.
“There is a place in playgrounds for the traditional swing and slide, but play spaces should include natural features to explore, such as trees, logs, rocks and stones."

Safety and adventure already coexist in many New Zealand playgrounds, Rawcliffe said. “Many of our playgrounds strike the balance between ensuring safety and testing a child’s spirit for adventure.”

Canadian play consultant Adam Bienenstock believes New Zealand is “well positioned to lead the world in play spaces that are simple, nature-rich, sensory, and well designed". 

As parents, we want our children to be active; to climb, explore and to take risks. However, at the same time, we are responsible for ensuring that our children enjoy a life free from the adverse effects of potential injury. Our role as parents is to help them reach their potential – and that includes keeping a good eye on our kids to make sure they play safe. Parents should consider these playground safety tips from Safekids to help prevent the risk of serious injury occurring:
● Check for any hazards, such as broken glass, vandalised, rusted, damaged or broken equipment, and sharp, dangerous or damaged surfaces. Report any hazards immediately to the organisation responsible for the site, such as the school or city council, and do not allow children to use the equipment until it is safe.
● Ensure playground equipment is age-appropriate to your child. Separate play equipment and areas for children under fi ve are often available.
● In home playgrounds or other play spaces where potential falls could harm your child, avoid non-impact-absorbing surfaces, which include asphalt, concrete, grass, dirt or gravel.
● Actively supervise and play with your children – for children under five, remain within an arm’s reach when they climb, jump and swing. Interact with your children until you are certain that you know their ability.
● Teach children social skills about waiting their turn. Tell your children that pushing, shoving or crowding while on the playground can be dangerous.
● Children may not be able to judge distance or risk, so give guidance until they gain confidence and ability up the climbing walls.
● Dress your child appropriately for the playground. Remove any jewellery, especially necklaces. Also remove purses, scarves or clothing with drawstrings that could get caught on equipment and pose a strangulation hazard. 


Destination play
Most local authorities have a playground strategy relating to the size and distribution of their play network. This means that New Zealand children can visit their local neighbourhood playgrounds and community playgrounds as well as large 'destination playgrounds'. Destination playgrounds attract families from outside their region, often with features that identify with their locality, such as a wharf or wetlands, says play expert Juliet Robertson.

Fun features at some destination playgrounds can include: cycleways with mini-roads and stop signs, roundabouts, boardwalks and obstacles; wetland themed parks; towers with slides and climbing walls; binoculars, talking tubes and giant snakes-and-ladders games carved into hillsides; loose rocks, 'loose part' pits, sandpits, musical features, musical bridges, mini trampolines, modern swings and flying foxes.

Some of New Zealand’s well-known destination playgrounds include:
■Wynyard Quarter, Silo Park, Central Auckland, includes structures designed to reflect the life beneath the wharf - mussel stacks and rock pools, plus reclaimed objects from the waterfront.
■Barry Curtis Park, Flat Bush, South Auckland, is a wetland-themed park with giant pukeko and reeds.
■Frank Kitts Park on the Wellington Waterfront, known for its quirky huge lighthouse slide.
■'Steampunk' Friendly Bay in Oamaru features quirky designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery.
■Waterview Park, Herdman St, Waterview, Auckland was opened late last year. Designed for toddlers to teenagers, the park boasts water-play, risk-taking areas, even fruit trees.
For a full list of destination and local playgrounds in your region, contact New Zealand Recreation Association,, or your local city council.


Grace Cormack is a freelance writer and mum of a gorgeous little girl. She loves going on family day trips and her hobbies include dancing and running.


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