Do we worry too much about playground accidents and are we in danger of turning our children into a generation of neurotics, unable to cope with threats and dangers, whether real or imaginary?
The answer is yes, according to two Norwegian academics who argue that offering children opportunities for thrilling experiences through risky play helps to ensure they grow up as normal, well-balanced adults.
Writing in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, they say that learning to take risks through play is an import way of helping children to cope with, and master, challenges and phobias that form part of their lives.
"Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears on the playground," says Ellen Sandseter, associate professor of psychology at Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education in Trondheim, one of the research paper's co-authors.
"I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that can still give children thrilling experiences with heights and speed."
Dr Sandseter has identified six categories of risky play after observing children in Norway, England and Australia. These are: great heights; high speed; dangerous tools; dangerous elements; rough-and-tumble; and getting lost.
She and her co-researcher Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, argue that anxious children "may elicit overprotective behaviour" from parents and other adults responsible for their care making them even more fearful.
"Overprotection might thus result in exaggerated levels of anxiety. Overprotection through governmental control of playgrounds and exaggerated fear of playground accidents might thus result in an increase of anxiety in society. We might need to provide more stimulating environments for children rather than hamper their development," they say.
The research has prompted widespread coverage worldwide, especially in the US where an article in the New York Times (July 18) sparked a bout of national soul-searching about whether the country has gone too far in removing jungle gyms, slides and other traditional playground apparatus that are deemed too risky.
In Britain, however, the debate has moved on since former CBI director Digby Jones led a 2007 campaign to counter the "cotton wool kids" culture that he said was preventing children from taking on risk and adventure.
"The debate here is much more mature now," says David Yearley, head of play safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. "Children should be exposed to a certain degree of risk, not because an activity is risky per se but because it is fun, exciting and challenging."
An estimated 40,000 children a year are injured in playground accidents resulting in a hospital visit, but most result in minor harm, according to accident-prevention charity Rospa.
It cites poor equipment, poor design, poor inspection and maintenance as major causes of accidents, while others include lack of supervision and misuse of equipment.
Tips for heads
- Develop a clear policy that balances the benefits of exciting play with a rigorous risk assessment of potential hazards.
- Ensure that playground apparatus complies with safety standards and is maintained.
- Children's Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective. Research paper by Ellen Sandseter and Leif Kennair: www.epjournal.net
- Are playgrounds safe? Frequently asked questions: www.rospa.comfaqs
- Information and resources: www.freeplaynetwork.org.uk