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For Kids This Summer, How Safe Is Too Safe?


If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Sheir.

It's summertime, and that means no school. Kids can play, explore and climb all day long, which means an added challenge for parents who want to keep their kids out of harm's way.

In the past few years, major cities like New York and Philadelphia have been renovating playgrounds to make them safer so kids can play hard and their parents can rest easy.

JESUS AGUIRRE: We're standing at the Palisades Recreation Center in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

SHEIR: Jesus Aguirre is director of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. We met him at one of the several dozen city playgrounds slated for major renovations. This one is still under construction.

Looking around, I asked Aguirre about how his department designed this playground to be safer, yet still challenging and fun for the kids.

AGUIRRE: Yeah, no, that's the challenge. Obviously, our goal is to get children outdoors, exploring and, on some level, taking risks, right, climbing and doing things like that. The approach to safety has to do with the way from the very beginning how we design the playground from the ground up. Because kids, you know, they'll climb this rock, they'll jump. That's what they're designed to do, so we want to make sure that the surface is safe.

You notice the swing space here looks pretty separated from everything else. Obviously, you want to have enough room so the kids are swinging. And, you know, they're going to jump and you want to make sure there's enough room there.

SHEIR: I'm seeing some really interesting equipment on this playground that quite frankly I never saw when I was a child on a playground. Can you talk about some of the particular features?

AGUIRRE: So we wanted to move away from sort of a typical play structure, the swings and just the slides, which are important. But we wanted to create spaces that look natural but are much safer and are going to be around for a really long time. So you look at these rocks, they look very realistic, but that's glass fiber-reinforced concrete. So, you know, it's not going to crumble. It's not going to fall apart. It'll be there for 50 years.

There's some folks who argue that our playgrounds are getting too safe. Certainly when I was younger, there was a lot more sort of the standard metal monkey bars, climbing structures that probably weren't as thoughtful in terms of safety and things like that. So we, you know, we incorporate that, but obviously we make sure that they're - that we take advantage of all of the new, you know, research around safety and making sure that we're making them safe, while balancing the need to have playgrounds really serve as learning opportunities, you know, physical and social and all of these other developmental aspects that we really aim to achieve here.

SHEIR: One of those researchers works as the director of the Injury Free Coalition in Rochester, New York. Anne Brayer sees kids come in every day with minor and major injuries. And she's even helped build a safer playground in Rochester. I asked her what's wrong with the old-school metal jungle gyms and seesaws that, well, I grew up with.

DR. ANNE BRAYER: Well, there are different things. I think probably the number one thing is the surface on which it's built. So old playgrounds were just built on grass, specifically for swings and climbers. If kids fall from any kind of height, they can be pretty seriously injured. So putting state-of-the-art, rubberized cushioning or wood mulch that's thick enough will really prevent a lot of injuries. Likewise, some of the death that have occurred on playgrounds happened from strangulations.

SHEIR: So things like jungle gyms?

BRAYER: Jungle gyms, monkey bars, climbers of any sort are a particular concern.

SHEIR: So then what kinds of equipment are we seeing in these newer playgrounds that will prevent these things from happening?

BRAYER: They have protective surfaces so that burns are much less likely. Slides tend to be the tunnel slides so that it's less likely for kids to fall off of them. Playgrounds nowadays are designed for specific ages in mind, and that's usually posted at the playground, just so families at least are aware that their 2-year-old may not be all that safe playing on that equipment that's designed for 8-year-olds.

SHEIR: You know, part of going outside on playgrounds and playing is the thrill it gives children.

BRAYER: That's true.

SHEIR: So I want to ask your opinion on this. Is there such a thing as being too safe in terms of equipment, dumbing down the equipment so that there's not as much thrill and exhilaration from playing?

BRAYER: Yes. Certainly, you could make a play equipment that is so safe that it's no fun to play on. But I think it's still possible to have lots of fun on current playgrounds. You just need to think a little bit outside the box.

SHEIR: But does the child lose anything from playing it too safe? Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is a professor of psychology at Temple University, and she says, sometimes, yes.

KATHY HIRSH-PASEK: Look, I don't mind changing from wood to plastic, but I do think that we have to let kids climb a little bit higher because we learn a tremendous amount from getting that skinned knee. And we become successes not just by succeeding but sometimes by failing.

SHEIR: What about those who say that our children's safety is the most important thing, as in, you know, sometimes it's more than a skinned knee or a bruised elbow.

HIRSH-PASEK: Well, I think throughout time, we've had to be very careful that children didn't touch hot stoves and that they don't pretend to be Superman and jump off roofs. And we have to parent here and regulate that they don't do those things because they really aren't safe.

On the other hand, I think we have to find the right balance. And being in a penned environment maybe isn't the right balance. Maybe we still need to let children climb those trees because they're learning a lot by climbing them and they're getting a lot of confidence while they do.

SHEIR: So parents have to sort of walk a fine line between keeping an eye on their children's safety but then also being helicopter parents. How do they manage that?

HIRSH-PASEK: Well, it's often not easy. But, you know, we have to think in the long range, what kind of society do we want, and what kind of children do we want to raise in that society? We're hearing a lot of news today, especially from corporate America, that we want innovators. That means we have to be adaptive, we have to be flexible, and we have to learn how to take those challenges.

SHEIR: That was Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University. So enjoy those monkey bars and happy fun summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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