For years, educators in the United Kingdom put much effort into ensuring that children would have risk-free experiences on the playground.
But now, according to a New York Times report published Saturday, that might be changing.
With experts determining that exposing children to some risks might actually actually be beneficial when it comes to long-term child development — as it helps build resilience — some educators are trying to change things up.
For example, at the Richmond Avenue Primary and Nursery School in southeast Britain, there are now two-by-fours, crates and loose bricks for children to play with, The Times reported, in addition to workbenches with hammers and saws, a mudpit and a tire swing.
“We thought, how can we bring that element of risk into your everyday environment?” said Leah Morris, who manages the school’s early-years program.
“We were looking at, OK, so we’ve got a sand pit, what can we add to the sand pit to make it more risky?” she added, explaining that “we have fires, we use knives, saws, different tools.”
This new trend is perhaps best exemplified by a sign outside the Princess Diana Playground in Kensington Gardens in London. The hugely popular playground attracts about 1 million visitors every single year.
And now, parents bringing their children there are informed that kids are going to be exposed to risks.
Risks have been “intentionally provided, so that your child can develop an appreciation of risk in a controlled play environment rather than taking similar risks in an uncontrolled and unregulated wider world,” the sign reads, according to The Times.
This kind of thinking has received support from both sides of the political aisle in Britain. Conservatives appreciate that children can be free of what The Times called the “cosseting of a liberal nanny state.”
And liberals, meanwhile, like the idea of kids being able to experience a “more natural” childhood.
According to the head of Ofsted, the British agency that inspects the nation’s schools, it’s important for children to experience the positives that can result from risks.
“Inspections will creep into being a bit more risk-averse unless we explicitly train them to get a more sophisticated understanding of the balance between benefits and risk, and stand back, and say, ‘It’s OK to have some risk of children falling over and bashing into things,’” said Amanda Spielman. “That’s not the same as being reckless and sending a 2-year-old to walk on the edge of a 200-foot cliff unaccompanied.”
The shift in thinking regarding risk represents a big change after more than decades of moving in the opposite direction. In the 1970s, The Times said, parents started to become concerned about the dangers their children might face in their own neighborhoods.
In 1971, roughly 85 percent of British 9-year-olds went to school alone, though that number dropped to 25 percent by 1990.
Around that same time, playgrounds started to change drastically.
“Plank swings and steel merry-go-rounds disappeared, while impact-absorbent rubber surfacing spread over drop zones, driving up the cost of new playgrounds,” The Times reported. “A market appeared for lab-tested, safety-certified fiberglass boulders.”
In some ways, this was somewhat similar to what one might see today in an American playground.
“It’s a rubber floor, a little structure surrounded by a fence, it’s like a little play jail,” American landscape designer Meghan Talarowski said of U.S. playgrounds. “As a grown-up, you’re sitting there on your phone, waiting for them to be done.”
Talarowski decided to compare the trend toward more adventurous playgrounds in Britain to the somewhat sterilized parks in the U.S. What she discovered was that exposing children to risks on a playground can be a good thing.
“The findings suggested that exciting equipment had a pronounced effect: The British playgrounds had 55 percent more visitors overall, and children and teenagers were 16 to 18 percent more active,” The Times reported.
“The features that held visitors’ attention the longest — sand, grass, high swings and climbing structures — were elements U.S. park managers use sparingly because of high maintenance costs and the risk of falls.”
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