School Playgrounds – Is There Such a Thing As Too Safe?

By Becky Benoitplayground

I recently accompanied my seven-year old to a school playground on the weekend for an hour or two of afternoon fun in the fresh air. First, a confession: after a busy week, I was hoping that some time spent swinging, climbing and running might tire my little kid out, possibly opening the door to an early bedtime and some quiet time for Mom and Dad.

I’m reasonably sure this was a strategy employed by my own parents, who used to shoo me out the door to the playground at the slightest provocation with the vague advice to, “Go get some exercise.”  When my sister and I heard the unmistakable thunk of the front door lock sliding home behind us, we knew we were out for the afternoon, and so we’d head off to the school playground and that perennial triumvirate of childhood delights: the merry-go-round, the jungle gym and my favourite, the enormous metal slide.

I realize that I should be grateful that my daughter and I have the privilege of a school playground within walking distance from our home. From my limited experience with school playground fundraisers, I have come to the realization that playgrounds are terribly expensive pursuits that require years of dedicated planning and hours of work by volunteers. Gone are the days when a school playground came part-and-parcel when a school was built, an obvious necessity as important as the music room and the science lab (also conspicuously absent from schools built today). I’m looking forward with dread and trepidation to the day when we have to fundraise for books in the school library, or basketballs in the gym, in order for our kids to have these things as part of their education. But I digress.

I also realize that we were lucky to find a playground that was actually open for business in the winter. It’s become a sad reality that playgrounds are regularly closed during the winter months (and in Fort McMurray, you might as well read that as the lion’s share of the calendar year) because the icy conditions make it “unsafe.” According to this logic, it’s safer for our kids to be standing in a motionless clump, jabbing away at their Smartphones or iPods, during the winter months than risking a broken arm or a sprained ankle on the playground. But again, I digress.

I should have known my dreams of reliving carefree childhood days on the playground through my child were not to be when she complained, “But Mom! I don’t want to go to the playground! It’s BORING.” Boring? The playground? Seriously?

And when we arrived, as I surveyed the oversize plastic cubes in a variety of primary colours, complete with teeny plastic slide and a “climbing wall” that seemed awfully similar to the pegboard I hang tools on in my garage, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another scene from my childhood.

When I was a youngster, in response to my repeated pleas for a dog, my parents took the path of least resistance and bought me a hamster. My furry friend was securely encased in a brightly-coloured plastic environment called a Habitrail which kept him safe from the terrors of the outside world, or more specifically, our cat Cally. I couldn’t help but draw the distinction between my hamster’s beautifully-coloured, super-safe rodent prison and the play structure that lay before me, which my daughter was eyeing with a clearly underwhelmed air.

I couldn’t help but harken back to the good old days, when I conquered my terror and ascended the stainless-steel ladder of the towering metal slide, the adrenaline rush of the ride down made all the more satisfying by the sense of accomplishment that came with it. Or the time I managed to climb all the way to the top of the steel spiderweb of our jungle gym, surveying the playground far below me with as much pride and contentment as the first man to clamber to slopes of Everest.

I don’t remember any serious injuries on the playground during my tender years, but I’m sure there may have been a sprained elbow or a broken arm, from time to time. And I fully admit that today’s playgrounds are ever so much safer than those wonderlands of my distant memories. But at what expense? Have we, in the act of making our children’s world as safe and free from any potential injury or unpleasantness, sucked all the joy out of the playground experience? The heavy sigh from my daughter as I enjoined her to “go play and have fun” seems to suggest that this is a possibility.