Playgrounds too safe, stifle imagination, some say

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Are playgrounds too safe? It might sound like a strange question, but some psychologists are now saying our safety-first play policy, could be backfiring.

Gone are the steep slides and the massive monkey bars. This week a New York Times article made an interesting point about our modern-day play spaces: they just might be too safe and that kids need a little more risk. It's the new face of fun.

Most adults probably grew up with things like see saws, large swing sets, spinners and merry go rounds.

As a Landscape Architect with Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation, Morgan Selph has seen a child's most basic outlet for entertainment evolve over the years, to a more safe space, and he's not so sure it's a good thing.

"We've gone too far," Selph said. "We've sanitized our playgrounds and now there is a movement for us to move - still in the safe zone, but to include elements that are missing from today's play."

We've gone too far. We've sanitized our playgrounds and now there is a movement for us to move - still in the safe zone, but to include elements that are missing from today's play.

–- Morgan Selph, landscape architect

Those missing elements, Selph said, include taking risks and overcoming fears. Therapist Julie Hanks agrees: play is not just play.

"That physical world is really important for development," Hanks said. "It's crucial for kids to have experiences with the physical world where they can do something that is hard or scary --that helps develop self-esteem and self-confidence and (say) ‘Wow maybe I can do this next thing,'" she said.

You could call it a turning trend or a new push to return to playgrounds that offer movement and height: a space that values safety, but also encourages imagination.

"I think our society is suffering from the ability to be creative," Selph said. "We're seeing other countries starting to out-create us. And I think it's important for our society and our parents and our child development people to include all those aspects in play that fosters the capacity, the intellect to cooperatively, imaginatively, create."

So until you see these changes implemented in a playground near you, Hanks suggests taking advantage of nature. Hiking, rock climbing --thrills and risks beautiful Utah mountains offer for free.

She also points out that kids are prone to adventure and if playgrounds are too boring, they just might seek more dangerous forms of risk, elsewhere. In the face of that possibility, maybe the monkey bars don't seem so bad.


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Brooke Walker


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