Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Jungle Gyms and Seesaws

The first playground I ever knew was the one in the apartment complex where I spent my first couple of years. It had big tubes for climbing and playing peek-a-boo, made of knee-scrapingly rough cement. From there, I went on to such playground delights as tall jungle gyms, wooden seesaws, roundabouts and a schoolyard with hard blacktop surfacing and a huge circular metal device on a pole that six or seven kids could grab and swing up and around till we were giddy with delight and vertigo.

The playground where my kids spend a sizable percentage of their free time has separate sections for toddlers and older children. The equipment consists mainly of swing sets and multilevel climbing units with ramps, ladders, monkey bars, swing bridges and observation towers, nothing higher than eight feet. The ground is covered with rubber padding, the better to cushion falls. There are no big roundabouts, tall slides or seesaws - I can't remember the last time I saw a teeter-totter - and certainly nothing resembling my school's old pole swing. Everything is designed with safety (and lawsuit avoidance) in mind.

I got through my childhood with nothing more than the usual bumps and cuts. My first ER visit was in junior high, but not for a playground accident. (Gouged open my elbow on a metal drugstore shelf.)

Last September, my daughter slipped off the monkey bars, landed awkwardly on the nice safe rubberized ground and broke her wrist. She celebrated her fifth birthday in a full arm cast.

Now it seems that the old-fashioned playgrounds may be better for kids after all. Psychologists say that thrill-seeking is a normal part of child development, and that learning to master tall playground apparatus and zip down speedy slides helps develop confidence. When play areas are too tame, kids get bored. Researchers have even found that children who are hurt in a fall before age nine are less likely to be scared of heights later on.

So I'll try to relax a little next time I see my son dangling himself over the edge of the playground tower or joining a group of friends in a game of Let's All Go Down the Slide Together. And when my daughter's wrist healed, I encouraged her to get back on the monkey bars. After a few nervous tries, she was swinging from end to end as if the accident had never happened.

Even in a safe environment, our children need a little danger.

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