Playful City USA: Can a new playground initiative inspire safe adventure for kids?

kaBOOM
Image courtesy of HeartShare.

More playgrounds = good. Lame playgrounds? Not so much.
By Brendan Crain

Last month, a national nonprofit on a mission to put a playground within walking distance of every child in America, launched the Playful City USA program, where cities were recognized for meeting the following criteria:

1. Creating a local play commission or task force
2. Designing an annual action plan for play
3. Conducting a play space audit
4. Outlining a financial investment in play for the current fiscal year
5. Proclaiming and celebrating an annual “play day.”

Play is an important thing for every human being; play challenges and educates us, and helps us to grow and mature. Skinning your knee on the playground is part of life, and the only way to learn to watch where you’re running. It is promising, then, to see cities taking play seriously through something like Playful City USA. It will be important, however, for KaBOOM and the Playful Cities to make sure that they encourage actual play, which involves some element of chance (or even potential danger). Being shuttled over a carefully-plotted course through a plastic play structure with tic-tac-toe on one of the walls and a three-foot slide at the end is not play. That’s cattle-herding.

So let’s hope that KaBOOM has heard of adventure playgrounds. A recent post at WebUrbanist featured photos of these types of environments from around the world. They come in all shapes and sizes, but what earns a playground the “adventure” modifier is the way that the environment directs childrens’ play activities. While standard contemporary playgrounds have been softened and padded to the point of impotency, adventure playgrounds introduce elements of risk to a child’s play, putting them into positions where they encounter problems and must make decisions. Adventure playgrounds often incorporate some modifiable element, allowing children to build or tear down structures and develop a claim to or sense of ownership of their playspace.

If you’re scoffing right now at the idea of children being allowed anywhere near a ninety-degree angle or — god forbid — something that produces splinters, think for a second about how many sword fights you had with sticks; how many times you went exploring in the forested part of a park, imagining a new world; or how many times you climbed a tree when you were a kid. Now think about that friend whose absurd risk-aversion keeps them at home almost every night, or the co-worker that’s incapable of making their own decisions. How many times you think they played with sticks or went exploring? Or climbed a tree, for that matter? One of Benjamin Franklin’s greatest quotes fits nicely here: “He who gives up freedom for safety deserves neither.”

That’s not to say, of course, that children should be left to run willy-nilly as they please across the countryside (or the abandoned lot two blocks down). Safety is an important concern, but as with all things, balance should be the goal. It is impossible to eliminate risk from childrens’ lives, and to try will only strip them of their sense of wonder.

Don’t tell a kid this, but a lot of the most important learning they’ll do will be during playtime. Large chunks of the day for kindergarteners are given over to play to teach socialization. As children mature, so should their opportunities for play, lest valuable learning opportunities be lost. Any group working to create valuable urban play spaces needs to be able to figure out how to continue to challenge children as they grow.

Sometimes, that means knees get skinned.

Read more from Brendan at The Where Blog.

Tags: brendan crain, playgrounds