Imagine a playground littered with loose bricks, lumber, hammers, nails and saws and ringed by jagged boulders and thorny bushes. While this might seem like a lawsuit waiting to happen, educators in countries like the United Kingdom are intentionally adding such elements of risk to their playgrounds to help make children more resilient.
“I think risk is actually an incredibly important part of development and it’s something that we’ve really sanitized out of our playgrounds,” Meghan Talarowski, the director and founder of Philadelphia, PA-based Studio Ludo, told CTV News Channel.
Studio Ludo is a non-profit with a mission to foster “better play through research, design and advocacy.” Talarowski, who is also a certified playground safety inspector, researches how the design of things like playgrounds impacts both the physical health and social behaviour of children.
Talarowski says that she is not advocating for simply dropping hazards into existing playgrounds.
“It’s (about) creating a structured environment to teach children about risk as they learn skills to grow into adulthood,” she explained.
Playgrounds, Talarowski added, were initially conceived as safe places for children to play. But in today’s world, where towering wood structures are being replaced with rounded plastics and concrete surfaces are being swapped for impact-absorbing rubbers, many of them have become “too safe.”
“If you make a playground so safe that it’s boring, you’re going to lose kids,” Talarowski said.
That’s why, Talarowski says, you seldom see kids over the age of six or seven in playgrounds.
“Really, they’re finding things that are more fun like screen time,” she said. “So what we advocate for is environments that have incremental risks that are a lot more fun and exciting for kids in that eight-to-10-and-beyond age range.”
In her research, Talarowski says that she also often sees kids climbing on and around playground structures out of boredom “in a way that designers didn’t intend.”
“I think kids will always find a way,” she said. “So you have to always be a step ahead of them and then provide them those kinds of spaces that they naturally gravitate towards.”
One of the biggest obstacles facing this push for riskier play areas are litigious cultures, Talarowski admitted. In the United States, where health care costs are high, if a child becomes injured at a playground, it could become a huge financial burden for his or her parents. But in countries like Canada and the U.K., Talarowski argues that public health care means that we should be willing to allow our children to experiment with risks and learn how to understand and react to them “in an incremental setting” like a purposefully-designed playground that features elements like natural rocks and wooden climbing areas.
“Life is not safe — life has risks,” she said. “It’s incredibly important to think about the role of cities and the role of the built environment and how it’s creating the adults of tomorrow and what skillsets we’re hoping they can have.”