How To Build A Playground That Teaches Kids About Risk And Danger

It's all fun and games — and someone probably gets hurt.

by Jon Moskowitz
playgrounds that teach kids risk and danger

American playgrounds are boring — and not just because pushing a swing has a hypnotic effect. It’s because in the past few decades, the fear of litigation and ER visits turned the blacktop into safety foam. Seesaws and merry-go-rounds are banned! Grass is considered a ”dangerous surface!” And yes, there are “adventure” playgrounds out there with zip lines, trampolines, and rope bridges — but where’s the danger when you’re wearing a helmet?

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The idea of “risky” playgrounds is common in Europe, and one of the most celebrated is The Land, in Plas Madoc, Wales. It’s sometimes depicted as what would happen if The Warriors got their own Disney attraction. It’s the place where kids play with hammers, nails, fire, and other things OSHA would have a field day with. But, Claire Griffiths, AVOW Play Department Manager and designer of this intense outdoor space, says the benefits outweigh the perceived risks. Here’s why she thinks more kids need to be saying, “gimme danger.”

Risk Vs. Danger

Griffiths says parents need to first recognize the difference between what’s going to hurt kids, and what’s going to force them out of a comfort zone. Risk is good for kids. It allows them to test their limits, get a sense of how far they’re willing to go, and has neurological benefits. Danger is asking for a tetanus shot. “I think often people confuse risk with danger,” says Griffiths. “Risk is something children recognize — they know it when they see it, and they’re capable of managing it. Dangers are not obvious to the child. So exposed nails, or a rotten wood floor — these are dangers and the play space shouldn’t contain them.” (Of course, that’s a risk your kids took when they had you build it.)

Balance The Benefits With The Risk

The big point is not just to put kids in harm’s way, but to let them play with a nice helping of risk. Building a campfire? Good. Burning down the KOA? Bad. That’s why there are on-site supervisors at The Land, who aren’t there to interfere but to assist. Even before the kids go wild, the adults do the proper safety due diligence. “We do risk/benefit assessments for every activity. They’re really comprehensive documents — the one for fire, for instance, is 19 pages long,” says Griffiths. “We have a health and safety inspector who comes and writes reports. Normally, he deals with fire prevention, and we’re asking him to report on fire encouragement. It blows his mind a little bit, but he loves it.”

Yes, Your Preschooler Can Play

You’re aware that not all kids follow the same developmental schedule. Griffiths found that trying to impose age restrictions at The Land was counter-productive. “Originally it was age 5 and up, but what I’m finding is .. you can get a child who’s 3 and a child who’s 7, and the 3-year-old is much more competent and tougher than the 7-year-old. You’ve got to trust your judgement.”

Get The Parents Involved

If you want to build something like this in your community, it’s not the kids that will need convincing. Griffiths and her team did a lot of groundwork before building their playground. “We had nearly 8 years of play work in the community before we even created The Land. We’d load a car or van with what play workers call ‘loose parts’: wheels, gears, nuts and bolts, cardboard boxes — anything children can move or adapt,” she says.

Then they’d drop all of those Home Depot leftovers in the middle of town where kids had access to it. “Parents saw that wrapping them in cotton wool is not doing them any good. Children are resilient: they learn to roll with the punches.”

Collaboration Is Key

Let the kids take the lead on design (but make sure you follow). According to Griffiths, “The Land is co-created with the children. Whether it comes from play workers changing the environment after observing how the kids are using it, or the 2 of them doing it together. We call it modification. I think it’s exciting for the children when we change something before they arrive.”

That means no more bolted down twisty slides. No more cemented swing sets. Everything in The Land is modular. “None of it should be fixed,” says Griffiths, “it should be constantly evolving and changing as the children develop.” Throw a few 2x4s in the yard. There — you just built a playground.

Playgrounds Aren’t One-Size Fits All

That 20-foot tall treehouse with running water and Wi-Fi in your backyard is pretty cool. But does your preschooler appreciate it? “Sometimes you go to fixed playgrounds and they have these tall towers and structures, and to a little kid that can be overwhelming,” says Griffiths. In The Land she had kids build a “Shantytown.” It’s basically a bunch of donated wooden pallets that the kids build to suit them. For example, they’ll make tiny entrances and secret rooms that they can squeeze through, but grown-ups can’t. Or at least not without some Crisco and a crowbar.

It’s Meant To Be Crappy

Don’t buy things you don’t want to be scratched, dented, or engulfed in flames. “If a child comes to the playground and wants to destroy something, or take it apart, that’s fine. That’s as important as creating,” says Griffiths. “There’s nothing of monetary value here. Everything is donated, except for a couple of crash pads that we bought.” Like they say, one man’s trash is another man’s Sunday activity with his kids.

Don’t Worry About The Paint Job

Whatever your space ends up being, it’s going to look nothing like the multi-colored plastic and rubber foam Adventureland your town or school just spent a fortune on. It may end up being messy, muddy and even a little smelly. Hell, The Land looks like an abandoned junkyard surrounded by an 8-foot high fence. “The Land was originally a neglected piece of wasteland,” says Griffiths. “It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing space when you walk on to it. But it’s not our job to conform to that sense of order and tidiness, is it? Children come in and they get it. They know what to do.”