Balancing playground benefits and risks

Experts in child development stress that outdoor play is more than just an opportunity for children to run and let off steam. Active outdoor play contributes to good health, and there is growing concern that young children are spending too little time actively playing outdoors, resulting in long-term health consequences.

Outdoor play is also integral to overall child development. Children need physical challenges such as climbing, sliding, jumping and running. The process of testing their skills, socializing with other children, and playing creatively is important to children's emotional well-being.

There is emerging research on the value of including features from the natural environment in playground design to make playgrounds more appealing and accessible to children. Green features can be incorporated into playground design while still meeting criteria for safe design.1

Contemporary outdoor play structures (the kind which integrate platforms, ramps, slides and monkey bars) are designed with these concepts in mind. Their designs stimulate free-form, creative and social play more than stand-alone equipment (e.g., a slide or swing set). For children with developmental challenges, either physical or social, experts have observed that creative play structures positively contribute to integration with other children during outdoor play.

Although most serious playground injuries could be prevented by removing any heights from which children could fall, this could also make playgrounds less challenging and stimulating. Confronted with these competing needs, risk managers and injury prevention experts urge playground operators to adopt an approach of minimizing risk. Examples include: lowering the height of equipment (where possible) to an age-appropriate level, upgrading the impact-absorbing surfacing, inspecting and maintaining equipment and ensuring adequate supervision. Incorporating natural features to create an interesting and engaging play area is also very important.

Playground injuries can be prevented by using equipment that meets current safety standards, by ensuring there is a deep, soft surface under the equipment, and by actively supervising children at play.

Endnotes

1 Dyment J, Bell A. Our garden is colour blind, inclusive and warm: reflections on green school grounds and social inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education 2006;12(2):169-83.