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Are Safety-Obsessed Playgrounds Spoiling Our Children?

Christopher Robbins/Thinkstock(TRONDHEIM, Norway) -- Current safety standards veer public playgrounds towards the benign realm of soft and cushy: sharp edges are covered, jungle gyms and monkey bars are miniaturized to reduce the height children can climb and the whole things are placed on shock-absorbent wood chips or rubber mats to cushion the blow when children inevitably fall.

But are we really doing our children any favors by taking all the risk out of playtime? Some pediatric experts are saying no -- in the pursuit of protection for our children, we have stunted their ability to fend for themselves.

In a recent paper published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Norwegian psychologists Ellen Sandseter of Queen Maud University in Norway and Leif Kennair of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology write that "risky play" among young children is a necessary experience that helps children learn to master their environments. Protecting children from any risks in their playtime could breed children that are more likely to be anxious and afraid of danger.

"An exaggerated safety focus of children's play is problematic because while on the one hand children should avoid injuries, on the other hand they might need challenges and varied stimulation to develop normally, both physically and mentally," the authors write. "Paradoxically, we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology," they add. "We might need to provide more stimulating environments for children, rather than hamper their development."

Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital, says the slow disappearance of more traditional "risky" playground toys has more to do with litigation than with proven safety issues.

The gradual bubble-wrapping of public playgrounds occurred in response to growing evidence that a substantial number of injuries, some serious or fatal, were occurring on kid's playgrounds. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more 200,000 children a year go to the emergency room with playground-related injuries. Between 1990 and 2000, 147 such visits resulted in fatalities.

Further research has looked into how kids were getting hurt and what could be done to prevent it. A 2008 study published in the journal of Clinical Pediatrics found that 75 percent of injuries resulted from falls, hence current guidelines in some cities that require climbing equipment and slides be a maximum of seven feet high to reduce the chance of falling injuries.

Seesaws and merry-go-rounds were concerns for pinching injuries when children got caught underneath them and ropes posed strangulation risks, so these playthings became scarce.

So where do we draw the line between allowing children to get messy -- and perhaps a bit scuffed up -- for the sake of life experience, and protecting them from serious injuries like head trauma and broken bones? Ironically, Sandseter and Kennair note in their paper that playground injuries may have more to do with the risk-taking behavior of the child than with the equipment itself. "No matter how safe the equipment, the children's need for excitement seems to make them use it dangerously," they write.

In other words, the Evel Knievel kids that try to do backflips off the slide are going to hurt themselves no matter how much shock-absorbent padding we put down.

But this doesn't mean that that we shouldn't try to reduce the risk of serious injury, Smith says.

One of the best ways to strike the balance between safety and fun is to improve the grounds of playgrounds, he says. Making sure that surfacing under playthings is maintained and cushions the fall is a way to reduce injury severity without lessening how fun or challenging the equipment is, he says. That way, the daredevils will at least have a softer landing pad.

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