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Stroll through your local playground on a summer day and take note of what’s missing: swings, seesaws, jungle gyms, and, all too often, children.

Whether kept indoors by structured activities, parental fears, or the allure of Xbox and air conditioning, kids today enjoy less free-range play than their parents. And given that the effects of play deprivation extend from ADHD to lack of empathy, carving out the time and space for play could be as important to future generations as protecting our wild spaces and natural resources.

 

Playgrounds are an important community partner in the fight for children’s right to play, but only if they can hold their own in a sea of other options. The first step? Battling the boring.

Meg Wise, director of Smith Memorial Playground in Philadelphia, laments that most community playgrounds “have Smith Logogeneric pieces of play equipment that look exactly the same from one town or city to the next.” Smith, a Fairmount Park treasure established in 1899, strives to fill the void with 6.5 acres of natural space, an inviting playhouse, and a 39-foot wooden slide. Kids can climb on challenging equipment, stage a puppet show, or invent their own toys with cardboard boxes and tape.

But Wise says she doesn’t know of many places like Smith. Major U.S. cities are home to over 10,000 playgrounds and twice as many parks, but lots of factors affect their popularity, including overall size, aesthetics, and perceived safety. A recent survey in New York City revealed that 32 percent of adult caretakers wanted to see more features in their neighborhood playgrounds, while over a third asked for better upkeep. In short, truly amazing (free) playgrounds are hard to find.

Aaron Goldblatt, a partner at Metcalfe Architecture & Design in Philadelphia, admits he avoids using the word “playground” to describe the recreational spaces he designs. “It’s so freighted with everything from horrific design to an over-the-top emphasis on safety.” Instead, he likes to recommend open-ended play options, like hills and climbing boulders, that allow kids to navigate new terrain, create their own rules, and engage in “full-body play.”

Among his inspirations is the “adventure” playground, conceived around the time of World War II when Danish landscape architect C. Th. Sørensen noticed that children enjoyed playing with bricks and old construction materials more than using the conventional playgrounds he designed. Adventure playgrounds offer free access to simple materials that encourage children to imagine and create. Most are located in Europe, where the movement took off. (Mercer Island, Washington, offers one of only a few U.S. adventure playgrounds, where “children are provided toolboxes, various building supplies, safety items and the freedom to create build-it-yourself play zones.”)

Goldblatt says that generally U.S. playgrounds are “so vastly fixed, there’s nothing kids can do to affect the environment.” He cites possible reasons ranging from “our national fear of litigation” to adult concerns that are “more about the parents’ identity than any real threat to the child,” like fear of being seen as irresponsible for allowing kids to engage in riskier play.

Though city dwellers are as likely as suburban residents to live within walking distance of a playground, many urban areas are dotted with what Goldblatt calls “playground ghost-yards,” where the swings are missing and only the graffiti is fresh. Playgrounds like these, typically in low-income areas, tend to pose higher safety risks due to rusty equipment and damaged surfaces.

Caretaker stress may be another roadblock to play. Households with busy working parents may need to rely on childcare services plus “play dates” with hand-picked friends.

While playground accidents do occur, deaths caused by a playground injury numbered just 147 between 1990 and 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In comparison, 638 children were killed in motor vehicle accidents in 2013 alone.

And adventure playgrounds may not be any more dangerous than their plastic, primary-colored counterparts. “When a child approaches a conventional playground, she tends to be more reckless because she knows it’s safe,” Goldblatt says. “In an adventure playground, kids are cautious until they learn the terrain.”

Learning environment experts like Goldblatt suggest that riskier play lets children test-drive tricky situations, challenge themselves, and learn their own physical limits. Healthy risk may even keep outdoor play fresh for today’s high-tech kids. But when playgrounds replace “dangerous” equipment like swings and jungle gyms with safer alternatives, the result is a play environment that can’t compete with TV and video games.

Goldblatt admires a Berlin playground’s “glorious” 60-foot teeter-totters that would probably be met with horror by U.S. parents. He says, “A slide can be great. But a small plastic slide? That’s a waste of time and resources, avoided by even little kids.”

It’s not easy to design play spaces both kids and caretakers love. Goldblatt jokes about a recent project for Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania: “The kids wanted places to hide. The teachers wanted good sightlines.” The resulting space featured child-approved boulders and climbing activities that met teacher goals for safety and upper-body strengthening.

But creating safe playgrounds that kids actually want to play in is only half the battle. The other half? Convincing caretakers not to interfere with free play. Meg Wise notes, “Since adults tend to make final determinations for how children in their care spend their time, children today are playing less and less.” She cites reasons like busy school schedules and structured activities, such as sports and music lessons.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 may also be to blame. To devote more hours to math and reading, schools began borrowing from time spent in recess and the arts. Nearly one in three kids had little to no recess in 2009, and a report from the CDC found that only 22 percent of districts required daily recess for elementary school students. Factor in rigorous college admissions and it’s no wonder play has been devalued in our hypercompetitive society.

But there’s more at stake than fun. According to the Association of American Physicians, child-directed play offers developmental benefits that cannot be gleaned in the classroom or through organized activities. Play helps children learn about themselves in relation to the world by letting them practice new roles, adapt to the unexpected, and discover life skills like conflict resolution. By negotiating environments and peer groups independently, kids learn confidence and self-advocacy, not to mention the creativity required to turn a hill into a fortress or a refrigerator box into a stage. And schools should take note: play may help improve cognitive capacity and the ability to store new information.

In Homo Ludens (“Playing Man”), Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga lists possible biological roles of play, from “a training of the young creature” to the “necessary restorer of energy wasted by one-sided activity”—that is, as an antidote to work. Play may have many functions, like forming social bonds or letting off steam, but Huizinga calls it “an activity connected with no material interest.” That value is lost when society’s focus is restricted to preparing kids for their adult lives.

Play deprivation may have lifelong mental health effects, like anxiety and depression. Recent studies point to a possible correlation with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, since play has been shown to improve impulse control and reduce inattention and hyperactivity. It’s possible that play for all could lead to fewer diagnoses of ADHD or at least help manage symptoms. And kids who don’t learn the lessons of the playground may struggle to relate to others, function in groups, and cope when things don’t go their way. In other words, the social skills required for a simple game of tag can later be used to settle dorm disputes and meet workplace challenges.

Also alarming are the long-term health risks of low activity. Vigorous play in fun, challenging environments helps curb childhood obesity and related illnesses, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea. Passive pastimes, like watching movies on an iPad or playing video games, can be valuable in moderation but can’t replace the benefits of outdoor recreation. In fact, the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health reported that kids without access to parks or playgrounds were 26 percent more likely to be obese than those who lived near play spaces.

Meg Wise acknowledges that many adults feel they have good reasons for limiting child-directed play. Perceived lack of safe spaces or fear of dangers sensationalized in the media may prompt caretakers to keep kids indoors or shuttle them from activity to activity.

Aaron Goldblatt agrees: “There’s a growing concern for loss of space … not just physical, but conceptual and emotional. Sometimes I hear parents saying, ‘Stop running.’ ‘Don’t get dirty.’ Are they nuts? That’s what kids do!”

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