Wall Street Journal – August 13, 2008
By Philip K. Howard
Just when we thought playgrounds were accident-proof -- no more merry-go-rounds, high slides, jungle gyms, seesaws or pretty much anything that's fun -- it turns out that safety itself can be dangerous. A recent heat wave in New York exposed a new playground risk: The ubiquitous rubber safety matting gets hot, not as hot as McDonald's coffee, but hot enough to scald tender feet.
The outrage was immediate. "Playgrounds should be designed with canopies," one park- safety advocate declared. "How many burn cases will it take," Betsy Gotbaum, the city's public advocate asked, "before the city wakes up and acts?"
The headlong drive for safety has indeed created dangers, but not those identified by the safety zealots. Risk is important in child development. Allowing children to test their limits in unstructured play, according to the American Association of Pediatrics, "develop[s] their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength." Scrapes and bruises are how children learn their limits, and the need to take personal responsibility.
The harmful effects of our national safety obsession ripple outward into society. One in six children in America is obese, and many of them will face a lifetime of chronic illness. According to the Center for Disease Control, this problem would basically cure itself if children engaged in the informal outdoor activities that used to be normal. But how do we lure children off the sofa? One key attraction is risk.
Risk is fun, at least the moderate risks that were common in prior generations. An informal survey of children by the University of Toronto's Institute of Child Studies found that "merry-go-rounds . . . anecdotally the most hated piece of playground equipment in hospital emergency rooms -- topped the list of most desired bits of playground equipment." Those of us of a certain age can remember sprinting to get the contraption really moving. That was fun. And a lot of exercise.
America unfortunately is going in the opposite direction. There is nothing left in playgrounds that would attract the interest of a child over the age of four. Exercise in schools is carefully programmed, when it exists at all. Some schools have banned tag. Broward County, Fla., banned running at recess. (How else can we guard against a child falling down?) Little Leagues forbid sliding into base. Some towns ban sledding. High diving boards are history, and it's only a matter of time before all diving boards disappear.
Safety is meaningful only in the context of other benefits and risks. Safety always involves trade-offs -- of opportunities, of scarce resources and, especially in the case of children's play, of learning to manage risk. The question is whether the trade-off makes sense. Soft rubber matting will cushion any fall. This is probably a good thing, at least in situations where children may fall on their heads. But rubber matting also gets hot.
There's only one solution. Someone on behalf of society must be authorized to make these choices. Courts must honor those decisions. Otherwise, the pious accusations of safety fanatics, empowered by the nearly universal fear of being sued, will guarantee a cultural spiral downwards toward the lowest common denominator.
For America's children today, that means spending more than six hours per day staring at a screen. Is that the way we want our children to grow up?
"A little common sense goes a long way," observed Adrian Benepe, New York City's parks commissioner. "Children should wear shoes. They're foolproof protection against hot surfaces." Shoes have undeniable virtues in an urban setting -- a small but useful lesson for young children.
I have an additional idea as well. Why not replant a few of the trees that were cut down, or radically pruned, in an effort to create a controlled play environment? The shade from the trees would keep the rubber matting a little cooler. Who knows, maybe we would even allow children to climb them.