Rethinking Playgrounds as Places for Active Imagination and Risk

Rethinking Playgrounds as Places for Active Imagination and Risk

Who's chicken?

Who’s chicken?

I ran across a pretty provocative post today that advocates tearing down the millions of safe plastic forts and rubber-coated equipment of our playgrounds. That while we may have originally built them as active places of exploration and imagination, the padded and sanded safety measures have take all interest and exploration out of play time. In fact, the post invites us to look at a different, softer option, such as sand or water playgrounds. Or giant foam blocks designed for construction and imaginary play.

Tear Down the Swingsets

There is something to be said here. I know that at my previous school, our kids, with a limited amount of playground equipment (esp as compared to their previous schools) were bored the first week at break/recess, wanting us to start games for them (we refused, purposefully), or they crowded up on the two pieces of equipment we had and were still bored.
But after a week or less of this, most kids were creating their own games, creating their own rules and we were only there to ensure that everyone was getting along (picture more conflict resolution here and NO “playground police” actions). And we were there in case someone got hurt, which happened occasionally.

But only twice did anyone get seriously. One kid cut his leg pretty badly on broken glass left hidden in the grass. We were in a neighborhood where our playground housed nefarious behaviors after 6pm. Pure accident. And we all learned to look around and pick up glass when we saw it.

The second serious accident was when a kid fell off the “safe” equipment, doing exactly what we had said not to do. See, there were rules we had to have for the “safe” equipment because it was boring and the kids used it in ways it wasn’t intended to be used, indulging in more exciting risk. And this kid broke a rule and broke his arm.

Oh, and we pulled NUMEROUS splinters each year caused by the “safe” wood chips spread below.

We loved the active, cooperative, imaginary play that our kids engaged in outside the 2 pieces of “safe” equipment. It was always amazing to watch.

And did I mention that these were 5th – 8th graders, all playing together? Yes, this age needs physical breaks and they should be in a multi-age, family setting. As they played together, the responsibility levels shifted with the multiage grouping, as the olders took on a mentorship or sibling-style caring for “the young ‘uns” around them.

Yes, playgrounds can, quite successfully, look and feel and teach very, very different.

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Written by GingerLewman

  1. Our school just purchased new playground equipment. Before, the students were playing on a blacktop. I started to observe the switch and how the kids would react. They have enjoyed playing on the new equipment – but I also see that they still gravitate back to the blacktop and create their own games. There are times that we have had to close the playground area because of snow – and they do not seem to mind. Thus I am proud of our students for not just settling and standing around! They are creative when they need to be!
    I do wish we could have multi age recess. It would be so nice to see that interaction! I think that our Aides that do recess duty would find it more enjoyable!
    Thanks for your thoughts! I look forward to hearing more from you!

    • Thanks for your comment, Laura. I’m glad that your kids have playground equipment and a blacktop space for choices and that they’re exercising those choices.
      I just like to ask questions and consider the merits and detractions of the current status quo. I appreciate your encouragement.

  2. School’s are so often risk averse when it comes to play equipment. They also tend to have a pretty narrow view on it, opting for the same old lifeless play equipment that is low risk and mainetance free but has little play utility.

    Adults think that a playground will be used in a given way but kids will play on it however they want and its key that the play spaces in school are designed to let kids use their imagination in play.

    The headteacher of our local school is prepared to think outside the box and has had some different, abstract natural playgrounds made which is really nice to see.

    There is a link to it here, ,it’s a shame more of these aren’t being built!

    • Wow! Thanks for the link to the Grassroots Play site. They have beautiful additions that are very simple and beautiful in design. And I suspect that kids would love to play on/around the pieces.

      I appreciate what examples you’ve brought to this discussion.

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