This article "Play areas to teach lost art of risk-taking"
by Tessa Mayes & Maurice Chittenden, appeared
in The Sunday Times, London on the 24th June 2001
© The Sunday Times, London, 24th June 2001.
Play areas to
teach lost art
DESINERS of children's equipment are developing new "extreme" playgrounds amid fears that youngsters have lost their sense of danger
Political correctness over safety and the fear of legal claims if a child as much as traps a finger have been blamed for neutering adventure in Britain's playgrounds.
Now, psychologists are warning that the trend is creating a new generation of timid youngsters. They say that "mollycoddling" children may prevent them from fully developing their sense of balance or the ability to weigh risks.
The Royal Society for the prevention of Accidents admitted last week that British Standards may have gone too far towards ruining children's fun and that some local authorities were "ultra-conservative".
Many playgrounds have become little more than padded gardens. Seesaws have been removed in some because they contravene European Union rules if they hit the ground. Slides seldom rise more than a few feet above the ground.
However, a new world awaits. Jeremy Gardner, of Windsor-based Design Works, drew up various plans for the Alien playground in Magma Park, Rotherham, modelled on a space station with high, unclosed platforms from which children could abseil down on ropes or descend via ladders.
It was modified in consultation with council planners to a single rocket design with an enclosed platform. Another 11 councils want to build Alien playgrounds.
"We are trying to push the boundaries as far as we can. Otherwise children are in danger of being robbed of their fun," said Gardner. "They can climb a tree, but we are not supposed to make something that they can explore using proper balance and skill,"
Manufactures have discovered that older children want more complex structures such as a maze, nets and "huddle areas" where they can talk . The biggest-selling structures are American-style multi-sport systems, which include basketball nets and pull-up bars.
Andy Yates, the technical director at SMP (Playgrounds), the company that makes Alien, said; "There is an unreal expectation among parents and consumers that you can come away from a playground without a scratch. It has held back British design. But now there is a growing realisation that children need risk,"
British Designers are turning to other countries for ideas. In Norway, a professor of physical education at Volda University has designed a risk-full adventure playground based on the philosophy that danger is good. Children swing from 25ft ropes across a 40ft stretch of ground covered in car tyres. There has been one broken arm in three years.
In Japan, a growing number of progressive kindergardens are building play grounds that include mini-assault course, ropes, high wooden beams and wooden walls.
"The idea is to toughen up the children, let them challenge themselves and find their own limits," said Shoko Kay, 33, who takes her four-year old daughter to one of the parks, "Most playgrounds are too safety conscious which gives children false limits, I do panic when I see how high she climbs but she never seems to fall off,"
Attitudes are also changing among parents in Britain, Rosemary Milne the co-ordinator of childcare at Castlemilk Economic Development Agency in Glasgow, has got £1,500 from a Scottish parliament fund to visit a play scheme in Norway where children are shown how to use knives as a tool in the woods, hunt for wild berries and light open fires.
Elizabeth Newson, emeritus professor of child development psychology at Nottingham University, said; "We are coddling our children too much. They need thrills and big muscle experience to learn about balance and aim."