No more than a couple of weeks ago I found myself atop a 30 foot train trestle in a nearby town. It’s a popular spot for summer time lake jumping, but this day it had no visitors but myself and two friends. Unbeknownst to us, you see, a late afternoon thunderstorm was making its way across the region. In fact, as we followed the train tracks to the bridge, the wind began to whip up, the darkened clouds racing overhead. We knew rain was certainly on the way, probably a bit more. But we didn’t drive all that way for nothing.
Just as we set foot on the trestle, the clouds began to open. A rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance. But as three brash, young men, we accepted the challenge. After all, a 30 foot jump is no small fall, but in a thunder storm? Who could pass up the thrill? Not us.
And so one by one, we took the plunge, one of us (read: me) occasionally yelling “Boat!” as the others, no longer able to change their trajectory, jumped. And again and again we jumped. It was a complete blast, a small tempt of fate on an otherwise lazy summer day. I would do it again, always with the back-of-the-mind hope that future generations will continue the tradition. But who knows. With all these hyper-safe playgrounds we’ve been creating, that sort of courage may be on short supply:
“Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground,” said Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway. “I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.”
After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.
“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”
I happen to be just old enough to remember mildly dangerous playgrounds. It took me some time, but I would always build up to the more daring feats, progressively conquering each section and level of the park. It looks like research confirms that many other children also do this.
The first thing that went through my head, though, when reading about this was the landing areas. I remember wood chips and maybe some rubber always softening my landings. It seems to make sense and intuition says that will make things safer, but in a similar vain to what Michael Hartwell has said about driving, that may not be the case:
“There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds,” said David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London. He noted that the risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.
“This sounds counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t, because it is a common phenomenon,” Dr. Ball said. “If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks. An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don’t understand its properties, they overrate its performance.”
I would like to see statistics that divide between rubber and other materials such as wood chips, but I’m not familiar enough with the subject area to know if those exist. It is interesting, however, that kids are willing to take such risks. I think this all points to a deeper desire to explore, to make the world a little dangerous. That’s one of the things that’s exciting about life.
Still, sometimes there’s nothing quite like being 10 feet off the ground, as a new generation was discovering the other afternoon at Fort Tryon Park. A soft rubber surface carpeted the pavement, but the jungle gym of Mr. Stern’s youth was still there. It was the prime destination for many children, including those who’d never seen one before, like Nayelis Serrano, a 10-year-old from the South Bronx who was visiting her cousin.
When she got halfway up, at the third level of bars, she paused, as if that was high enough. Then, after a consultation with her mother, she continued to the top, the fifth level, and descended to recount her triumph.
“I was scared at first,” she explained. “But my mother said if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you could do it. So I took a chance and kept going. At the top I felt very proud.” As she headed back for another climb, her mother, Orkidia Rojas, looked on from a bench and considered the pros and cons of this unfamiliar equipment.
“It’s fun,” she said. “I’d like to see it in our playground. Why not? It’s kind of dangerous, I know, but if you just think about danger you’re never going to get ahead in life.”