Can a playground—or a childhood—be too safe?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
July 19 2011 11:53 AM

Why Kids Need to Climb High

When I was a kid, my favorite playground, bar none, was Huffhines Park in Richardson, TX, home of the Giant Robot Slide. I know now (thanks to the wonders of Google) that Giganta was 19 1/2 feet tall, but at the time he seemed to stand as high as the very highest skyscraper, and you could, if you dared, climb not just into his middle to slide down those long, dark, scary arm slides but all the way up to the top and into his head. It was hot in Giganta, and the whole thing smelled of rust and cooked metal shavings (you could also burn your hand on Giganta if you touched him on a July afternoon). Grown-ups never went in. It was years before I braved that final ladder.

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You could also, if you were dumb enough, climb through the bars around his head and out onto his robot ears, and that is why you could never put Giganta up in a park today, although I think he can still be found (probably in a modified form) standing tall in Texas. Regulations regarding the height of climbing structures and slides and, of course, the ever-present fear of litigation mean many playgrounds fall short of the adventure that Giganta offered. Two psychologists, writing in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, say parents and overly zealous planners are protecting kids right out of the benefits of "conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery." Challenging climbing structures and other thrilling—but frightening—possibilities in a playground allow children to gradually overcome their trepidation and find in themselves the ability to try and succeed at something that once seemed too big or too high or too dark to dare exploring.The authors hope to remind us all, playground designers and parents alike, not to hinder children from "age-adequate risky play."

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And, in case we've forgotten what age-adequate play might constitute, the New York Times' John Tierney found an earlier paper by one of the article's authors, identifying six categories of risky play. As a parent, I take those six categories as a personal challenge. I had the opportunity to explore heights (thanks, Giganta), experience high speeds (remember go carts?), be near dangerous elements (sailing toy boats in the rainwater-swollen, 3 foot deep gutters of another Texas town), experience rough-and-tumble play (no touch football in my neighborhood) and wander alone away from adult supervision. Am I giving my kids the chances they need to explore the edges of their comfort zones and, occasionally, burst through them in ways that I probably would rather not know about until they're over?

I'm pretty sure I am. But those things came into my life naturally, without my parents thinking much about it (or anyone complaining to them, as I had someone do recently, that I was playing unsupervised in the park). In our world of helmets and safety seats and constant parental presence, it's easy to forget that one of the best ways to keep kids safe is to make sure that they learn that sometimes it's their job to take care of themselves. If we're hovering under them on the monkey bars, or worse, never building monkey bars at all, that's a lesson they're never going to have the opportunity to absorb. Eventually, you have to climb Giganta's final ladder knowing that there will be no rubber mat or adult arms to catch you if you fall (and that help is either a long slide or another ladder away). You have to make your own call about whether or not you can do it, and whether it's worth it. But once you're up there, you've got the whole park at your feet.

Thanks to Plaid Stallions for the image of Giganta. Long may he reign.

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