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POV: Where Have All The Playgrounds Gone?

Point Of View with Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Where Have All The Playgrounds Gone?

- Pending legislation to modify children's playgrounds will change the face of play in New Zealand.

Do you remember it? Hanging upside down from a parallel bar, your dress tucked into your undies, your hair like a fan beneath you. And you're swinging from your tightly hooked knees, dangling your arms, and imagining yourself flipping up or even letting go completely and somersaulting to the ground. And then the bravest would actually do it, all of you squealing with delight. And someone would fall, usually a boy. And he'd scrap or break something, a knee, a finger, an arm, and you would be in awe. And for a while you'd play a little more carefully, until, drawn to the edge of danger you'd almost tumble from the bar, extending always your bravery, your sense of physical prowess, until you took that risk and just did it.

Hold that memory, because if you go down to your local park, you'll notice the playground, the scene of so many of your early childhood fantasies, is no more.

In its place an array of generic, brightly colored, clip together plastic play-sets have sprung up. Barely challenging to an adventurous four-year-old the new playgrounds are infuriating for a stir-crazy seven-year-old with an impulse to play monkey.

We all know the reason why. Safety. That fashionable catchword appended to almost any discussion involving children and their activities.

But while both the United States and Canada have hard data recording playground injuries, according to Ruth Heather at Standards New Zealand local statistics are patchy to say the least. They include hospitalisation information where the exact cause of the injury is often unclear and ACC data, which is biased toward those requiring financial recompense. While Geoff. Wood of The Playground Institute in Auckland says that to his knowledge no-one really knows how many New Zealand children are injured on playground equipment each year.

Despite this lack of local empirical evidence New Zealand has decided to adopt a set of American Playground Standards for an interim period. And in July this year those standards will be reviewed, finalized and converted in full New Zealand Standards.

But aside from the inanity of remodeling the country's playgrounds on the basis of American experience, just how sound is the decision by the committee set up by Standards New Zealand to use quantitative accident figures as the determining factor in changing the face of play throughout the country.

Our experts (and of course politicians) seem to like this kind of quantitative data, free as it is from qualitative information and variables such as the wider value of playgrounds. Making decisions based primarily on this quantitative criterion is short sighted, reducing the play experience of children to a set of numbers and obscuring the bigger picture of how and why children play. And it may also be dangerous as a generation of over-protected children grow up failing to learn their personal boundaries and missing that most salient of attributes: a sense of consequence.

It starts small; this innate understanding that all actions have reactions and it can start with knowing that you just might fall and break your arm or scrape your knee. Moreover while that fear of injury and notion of potential danger teaches children to modify behavior it also imbues them with a sense of power and real achievement when they face the risk and win.

And whereas a traditional playground, with it's set of simple structures, was in many ways a preparation for the realities of life beyond the swings and round-abouts, it is now a professionally designed environment. An environment created expressly to control and minimize the perceived dangers of free play and to guide that play into acceptable and, of course, safe directions. You'll find curved edges to eliminate that dangerous knee swing and bars spaced too close to be a monkey or swinging hand grips so close to the ground that the catch of fear that once filled your throat is completely eliminated.

By composing play-sets with specific uses children now have little opportunity to invent their own games. Instead of an environment of opportunity the playground has become a series of separate exercises, each element while often connected to the next has its own pre-programmed outcome.

And somehow - perhaps inadvertently through the trend of increasing infantilism of children, the new playgrounds are only interesting to children under the age of five. Certainly my athletic seven-year-old has lost interest in the candy colored rocking animals, the mini slide or the hollow plastic pipe - the purpose of which still alludes both my daughter and me.

It's as if the heart has gone out of play, the exuberance and thrill and risk. And even if you don't have kids it's easy to see the kind of overprotected, uncreative, compliant messages we're pumping into children, in ways so covert that even the pleasure of a playground has become a tool of social conformity and ultimately control.

So now we await the media releases trumpeting the decline in childhood injuries sustained at local playgrounds, although what we'll base it against is any ones guess. But as with all quantitative figures, local or otherwise, the statistics will fail to recognize at least one salient fact: any reduction will be because hardly anyone over the age of five goes to the playground anymore.


© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, January 2002, send feedback to

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