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Perceived risk leaps onto school playgrounds

Outside challenges have inside benefits for students, experts say
Some schools buying new playground equipment are allowing for “perceived risk”—meaning, students sense some danger as they climb, slide and leap, but the chance of serious injury remains low.
Some schools buying new playground equipment are allowing for “perceived risk”—meaning, students sense some danger as they climb, slide and leap, but the chance of serious injury remains low.

Standing high on the platform of the school playground’s zip line, a student imagines a wild jungle across a craggy, bottomless canyon. Behind, the pack of imaginary tigers leaping from the wall mural is getting so close, the child can see the animals’ fangs. The student grabs the handle and zooms through the air like Indiana Jones, reaching the other side with a massive boost in confidence that will pay off for the rest of the school day and beyond.

The teacher supervising recess has a clear view of a child who’s not really that high, gliding safely over a soft, rubber surface. And it is one of many playgrounds being built on elementary school grounds across the nation.

Many district administrators may envision injured students and expensive lawsuits when considering new playgrounds that can cost between $55,000 and $75,000. But some schools buying new equipment are allowing for “perceived risk”—meaning, students sense some danger as they climb, slide and leap, but the chance of serious injury remains low.

Most children have a good sense of their capabilities when playing, says Robin Moore, director of the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University, which promotes learning and play areas for children that are designed around the natural environment, rather than factory-made equipment. “When children are exposed to opportunities for safe risk—not hazards, not hidden risks they wouldn’t see, like a shaky ladder—that is good for their development, they need that to develop as confident, risk-taking individuals,” says Moore, who also is a professor of landscape architecture.

Jungles and amusement parks

Elements of perceived risk were built into the new playground at St. Clairsville Elementary School in the St. Clairsville-Richland (Ohio) School District, says Principal Jim Rocchi. The playground opened April 1 with, among other features, a few “not very steep” climbing walls and a geodome that Rocchi says “looks like really heavy rope that they can climb inside and on top of. It was a little intimidating. The kids love it.”

The school’s previous playground was 40 years old and built on hard blacktop. “One of the biggest things we’ve seen is less injuries. We have mulch as surface,” Rocchi says.

The school did not pay for the playground. A group of teachers and community members raised $300,000 to renovate a 2-acre recreation area that also includes a small amphitheater, a small soccer field and a pavilion. A significant contribution came from the family of one of the elementary school’s preschool students, who had passed away. A local farmer donated the stone to build the playground’s amphitheater, where teachers can read to students outdoors.

The playground was designed by Pennsylvania-based PlayWorld Systems. Ian Proud, the company’s research manager, says products such as PlayWorld’s “DropZone” and LiveWire Zip Line give kids a sense of risk. “As the tendency to litigate has caught on, we’ve found the challenge level on playgrounds goes down,” he adds. “I tend to think the pendulum is swinging back. There’s an increased interest in activities that have been verboten.”

DropZone looks like a fire-pole combined with a open-air elevator. Students climb a ladder, then step on a small platform, which drops as they hold onto the pole. The zip line runs 60 feet from a platform to the ground. “It creates a sense of speed, creates a sense of flying over enough of a distance that a sense of excitement grows,” Proud says of the zip line. “These kinds of activities have only been in theme parks and jungles in South America—these are the kinds of activities we are looking to bring into a playground.”

There also is value in the games students make up on the playground, says Tom Norquist, senior vice president of marketing, design, and product development for the equipment designer, GameTime. “Imaginative play is another way to build a perceived risk element into the mix, for instance creating a pirate ship, or a tree house where the risk is an imagined adventure that originates in the child’s mind while they interface with the climbing, sliding, and social play opportunities,” Norquist says.

As for equipment designed with perceived risk in mind, Norquist cites GameTime’s open-weave net tunnel, he says. “When children are inside, the net sways slightly as you walk, and you can see the ground under your feet, but children are completely enclosed within the space,” Norquist says.

Spinning is another classic playground activity that provides a sense of daring, he says. “Children love the sensation of spinning, and there have been many equipment advancements made that allow children to experience rotating of their bodies at manageable speeds while meeting the applicable playground safety standards,” he says.

Rehearsal for life

The benefits of play and risk-taking extend well beyond the school yard, according to Anthony Pelligrini, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota. “One of the real benefits of kids’ play and what they do on playgrounds, more generally, is that they enjoy doing it so they are more motivated to initiate and maintain difficult tasks,” Pelligrini says.

“This level of engagement helps kids learn new things, exhibit their competencies in social and physical arenas, and really feel good about themselves.”

Playgrounds should be thought of as a “rehearsal for life,” adds Proud. For instance, equipment like see-saws force children to cooperate. Also, students learn better when they get a break from classroom instruction during the day, says Proud.

“There’s an increasing notion that children need open-ended play, need to blow off steam, need to go back inside having fully expressed themselves,” he says. “If we’re creating the context in which the child can exert themselves and develop their social skills, develop their bodies, burn calories, and we deliver the child back to the classroom ready to learn, then we’re doing our job.”

Dan Gardner, president of New Mexico-based ExerPlay, says playgrounds that are too safe don’t benefit kids. “As a parent we want to buffer our children, we want to have a cushion around them,” says Gardner, whose company sells equipment made by Landscape Structures. “If anything, we’re seeing results that this has been damaging to our kids. There’s nothing better than to have safe, perceived risk.”

Soft landings

Most playground injuries are a result of falls on surfaces that don’t have enough cushioning, Gardner says. But schools sometimes make the mistake of spending less money on surfacing because it’s not as visible as the equipment. “When the school board’s looking at it, and you’ve put $20K into a surface, they’re not going to see that,” Gardner says. “People need to be educated that a good surface is important.”

The two main types of safe surfaces playgrounds are using these days are “loose” and “unitary,” Proud says. A loose surface is made from loose rubber, sand or wood chips. These can be cheaper to install but take regular maintenance to make sure the materials are evenly distributed. A unitary surface, like soft rubber, is more expensive up front but requires far less maintenance, Proud says.

Donna Thompson, executive director of The National Program for Playground Safety at the University of Northern Iowa, says playground equipment should not be placed over grass, cement or asphalt. Safe materials include shredded rubber, sand, pea gravel, wood products, and rubber tiles. School administrators must ask about detail from the manufacturer, such as how thick the surface needs to be. The thickness should be in proportion to the height of the equipment.

Think outside play box

Gardner says he tells administrators to focus on the developmental benefits for students rather than just aesthetics. Playground equipment—depending on climate, materials, and other factors—can last for 20 to 25 years. He also says school managers should think outside the box. For example, one school he worked with put two sets of plans to a vote. The administrators and teachers wanted a more traditional playground while the students voted for a more modern system. The kids won. “We really miss the point when we don’t get what the actual users want to use,” Gardner says.

Tim Gill, a playground expert and the author of “No Fear: Growing Up In a Risk Averse Society,” says adults should give students some leeway. “Risks cannot be eliminated. Children need opportunities for challenging, adventurous play,” he says. “We, in turn, need to recognize that children can manage many types of risk, that they learn fast, and that they often learn best from their mistakes.”