How to let your children run free

The Independent, Monday, 3 October 2005

By Tim Gill

Take a few seconds to remember your favourite place to play as a child. Where was that special place? What did it look like? How did it smell? Here are some predictions. It was out of doors. It was away from adults. And it was a "wild" place - not truly wild perhaps, but unkempt, dirty, and quite possibly a bit dangerous.
It seems that, given the chance, children love nothing more than a secret hideaway they can make their own: usually a spot just out of earshot of a shouting parent. And parents, too, say that they want their children to be able to play outside more. Yet children are disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make them top of any conservationist's list of endangered species.
With childhood obesity on the increase, the physical benefits of outdoor play are obvious. What's more remarkable is the growing evidence that children's mental health and emotional well-being is enhanced by contact with the outdoors, and that the restorative effect appears to be strongest in natural settings.
The great thing about many natural places is that they are ideal environments for children to explore, giving the chance to expand horizons and build confidence while learning about and managing risks. These places are unpredictable, ever-changing, and prone to the randomness of nature. But, far from being a problem, the uncertainty is part of what attracts us to them in the first place. Indeed, in evolutionary terms, it is the unsurpassed ability of Homo sapiens to adjust to changes in its habitat that has, for better or worse, led us to be the dominant species on the planet.
A bit of danger and uncertainty is good for you. Bringing it back to children's play, the Danish landscape architect Helle Nebelong - the creator of some wonderful natural public spaces in Copenhagen - puts it like this: "I am convinced that standardised play-equipment is dangerous. When the distance between all the rungs on the climbing net or the ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. This lesson cannot be carried over into all the asymmetrical forms with which one is confronted throughout life."
But there's more to outdoor play than learning and health. Den-building, bug-hunting and pond-dipping make visible the intensity of children's relationships with nature. These primal activities not only show how closely attuned are our senses to the workings of the natural world, but also speak to a deeper spiritual bond with landscapes and living things that leaves impoverished those who, whether by choice or compulsion, lead their lives indoors.
The root causes of the dramatic loss of children's freedoms lie in changes to the very fabric of their lives over the last 30 years or so. A growth in road traffic, poor town planning and shifts in the make-up and daily rhythms of families have left children with fewer outdoor places to go. These changes coincided with - some would say fed into - the growth of what the sociologist Frank Furedi calls the "culture of fear": a generalised anxiety about all manner of threats that found fertile ground in turn-of-the-Millennium families, even though children are statistically safer from harm now than ever.
How can we set our children free again? My action plan for outdoor play would start with the spaces and places children find themselves in every day: playgrounds, parks, schools and streets. If what best feeds children's bodies, minds and spirits is frequent, playful engagement with nature, we need to go with the grain of their play-instincts and put our efforts into creating neighbourhood spaces where they can get down and dirty in natural, outdoor settings on a daily basis.
That's exactly what the authorities are doing in Freiburg, a German city on the edge of the Black Forest with strong green credentials. For more than a decade Freiburg's parks department has stopped installing the sterile playgrounds with tubular steel, primary-coloured plastic and expensive rubber surfacing, and instead has been creating "nature playgrounds" that are a bit more, well, earthy. The resulting landscapes are diverse spaces with mounds, ditches, logs, fallen trees, boulders, bushes, wild flowers and dirt. They are just like the wild spaces of our childhood memories, yet they meet European safety standards.
As Freiburg's existing public play-areas wear out, the parks department works with local children and adults to create these new-style nature playgrounds. More than 40 have been built so far, and they are designed with a lifetime in mind. Trees, bushes and flowering plants are carefully chosen to create playful nooks and crannies, to attract insects and birds, and to mature and spread.
The construction methods of Freiburg's nature play-areas are a model of sustainability compared to the processes and carbon emissions that go into building conventional playgrounds. They are also, typically, half the cost of a conventional fixed equipment play-area of the same size. The approach was introduced after research by the city's university showed that simply having good green space near children's homes encouraged them out of doors and away from the television.
Even here in the UK, what might be called a movement for real play is beginning to spread. In Newcastle, residents involved in improving Exhibition Park organised a "den day" to introduce children to the joys of shelter building. Asked what they thought about the day, one boy said: "I love this, getting really filthy-dirty!" while a girl responded: "If I could rewind back to this day every day I would. This is a mint day!" In Scotland, Stirling Council has been inspired by Helle Nebelong to create natural play-spaces across the authority. While one site was still being built, children started wrestling in the mud created by the construction works, and their mums persuaded the council to keep the muddy areas for good.
In the South-West of England, Wild About Play, an environmental play project, is supporting hundreds of play-workers and environmental educators by sharing playful ideas for outdoor activities. Children have told the project that what they most want to do in the great outdoors is to make fires and cook on them, and to collect and eat wild foods. Another environmental project, Greenstart, aims to show the benefits of contact with green spaces for younger children by running activity programmes in local outdoor spaces in Northumberland. One five-year-old boy involved in a family tree planting event said: "I can't wait to go back and see my tree." In Cambridge, Bath and Haringey, that near-extinct species, the park keeper, is appearing in a new guise. Called "play rangers", they are trained and run playful activities at set times, helping to build usage, and, ultimately, ownership of these spaces.
Forest schools - where teachers regularly spend whole days in the woods with their classes - are starting up in many woodland areas, supported nationally by an alliance of conservation charities, the Timber Trade Federation and the Forestry Commission. The charity Learning Through Landscapes is helping schools across the country to create some fine natural playgrounds.
Exciting outdoor environments are all very well, but children have to be able to get to them. Many communities are crying out for safer streets with lower speed-limits and less traffic. A growing alliance of environmental, road safety, and children's agencies has signed up to "20's plenty" , the call for a standard speed limit of 20 mph in residential areas. Some communities have gone even further and worked with local councils to create "home zones": people-friendly streets, based on continental designs, where the street-space is transformed from a car corridor to a shared space in which people can meet, children can play and the driver is a guest.
Having been part of the original campaign to introduce home-zones to the UK a decade ago, I recently surveyed some 40 schemes to assess their impact. More than half reported more children walking, cycling and playing in the street. Intriguingly, some schemes have also seen falling crime-rates and rising levels of community activity in the form of litter collections, festivals and street parties.
We parents also have the power to resist the seductions of consumerism and play our part in restoring to children some of the freedoms we took for granted when we were young. We can say "no" a little more, switch off the screens and direct our children's curious eyes to some altogether more expansive vistas.

©2005 Tim Gill. The full version of this article appears in the October 2005 issue of 'The Ecologist' magazine.

What you can do

Parents as well as policy-makers have a part to play in giving their children the chance to enjoy nature.

  • There's safety in numbers. The more we and our children get out and use streets, parks and public spaces, the safer everyone will be.

  • Get out with your children. Let them see you enjoying the outdoors. Join together for outings with other families.

  • Let children roam together. Remember your own childhood and the enjoyment of getting dirty, and playing without adult supervision.

  • Try to resist media scare-mongering. Fewer than one child in a million is killed by "stranger danger" each year, and today's children are more secure than ever before.

  • Children learn to be safe through experience. Give them a chance to know their physical limits through tree-climbing and other outdoor play.

  • Help them develop road-sense by travelling as much as possible by foot.

  • "Battery-reared" children will lack confidence as they grow up. Researchers have found a link between children who become victims of bullying and the protectiveness of their parents.
  • Playgrounds, Less Interesting Than Dirt

    By Chris Kahn, Sun-Sentinel, Education Writer

    Andrea Levin is grateful that Broward County schools care about her daughter's safety. But this year when they posted a sign that demanded "no running" on the playground, it seemed like overkill.

    "I realize we want to keep kids from cracking their heads open," said Levin, whose daughter is a Gator Run Elementary fifth grader in Weston. "But there has to be a place where they can get out and run."

    Broward's "Rules of the Playground" signs, bought from an equipment catalogue and displayed at all 137 elementary schools in the district, are just one of several steps taken to cut down on injuries and the lawsuits they inspire.

    "It's too tight around the equipment to be running," said Safety Director Jerry Graziose, the Broward County official who ordered the signs. "Our job was to try to control it."

    How about swings or those hand-pulled merry-go-rounds?
    "Nope. They've got moving parts. Moving parts on equipment is the number one cause of injury on the playgrounds."

    "Nope. That's moving too."

    "Well, I have to be careful about animals" turning them into litter boxes.

    Broward playgrounds aren't the only ones to avoid equipment that most adults remember. Swings, merry-go-rounds, teeter-totters and other old standards are vanishing from schools and parks around the country, according to the National Program for Playground Safety.

    "Kids aren't using them the way they're supposed to," said the agency's director, Donna Thompson, who led a national effort to get rid of animal swings two years ago. "I'm pleased that a lot of these are disappearing."

    In Miami-Dade County, public schools don't use a lot of traditional equipment, including swings and sandboxes. In Palm Beach County, some schools have swings, but they're no longer included on newer campuses because there's not enough space.

    In their place, a lot of playgrounds now are inhabited with clusters of bright, multi-use contraptions with names like "Ed Center" and "Platform Climber Composite Structure." They're lower to the ground than their predecessors, coated with plastic and engineered for safety.

    "We could do a lot more if we didn't have to watch our back every single second," said Graziose, who has led a playground safety committee for 17 years. "We sometimes get a letter from the attorney before we even get an accident report from the school."

    Thanks, litigious busybodies! So, what do the kids think? The girls tried out the horizontal ladder and balance beam for a few minutes before settling on a game of stacking plate-size dirt chunks into a neat pile. "Making sand," explained Kristin Gonzalez, 6, as she crushed one in her hands and sprinkled the bits over the pile.

    Bartleman, the only board member with children in elementary school, created a subcommittee this year to suggest ways to redesign school playgrounds. Safety is important, she said, but there's got to be a way to make Broward's playgrounds more interesting than dirt.

    "I would have never thought about this until my daughter came up to me one day and said `Momma, I hate going to that playground,'" she said.

    Hmm, and I wonder why kids are getting fatter? I mean, if they're NOT ALLOWED TO RUN ANYMORE. It seems like there might be a connection here . . .

    The newest playgrounds are usually filled with equipment engineered in accordance with U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines. They might expose schools and parks to fewer lawsuits, but they're not as challenging as the previous generations of playgrounds, said Joe Frost, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas who runs its Play and Playgrounds Research Project.

    "Play is one of children's chief vehicles for development," Frost said. "Right now it looks like we're developing a nation of wimps."

    Say it ain't so, Joe.

    Better Playground Safety

    A child begins his mobile life with constant accidents. Allowed to face certain challenges, he learns how to confront difficulties and keep injuries from reoccurring. Safety is part of a learning process which cannot be achieved by simply purchasing new playground equipment.

    The pursuit of safe playgrounds has ushered in an era where the act of play has given way to guidelines and regulations. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), has provided the framework for manufacturers to produce standardized equipment. The result of these efforts is an oversimplified structure that kids soon grow tired of. With boredom comes restlessness, fighting, and the pursuit to challenge "safe" equipment in unexpected ways.

    Injuries related to playground equipment are collected by CPSC from hospitals across America. In 1999, it is estimated that over 156,000 injuries occurred on public, playground equipment. Nearly 80% of these injuries were due to falls to the surface below the equipment. Where injuries occurred, 79% of public playgrounds had protective surfacing and 74% of the equipment was reported to be in "good" condition. Certainly there are measures that can be taken to reduce the risk of an injury, but they clearly do not prevent the majority of injuries from occurring.

    Here are some suggestions for dealing with injury risks that have a far greater effect:

    • Provide play events that settle into the landscape and are not exclusively elevated. Children can have as much fun on the ground as they have six feet off the ground.
    • Locate elevated structures away from the rest of the playspace so that it does not encumber circulation. Make sure that there is adequate physical and visual access for adults.
    • When recurrent injuries occur, have the flexibility to alter the landscape or equipment. Show children the method of your alteration which hopefully will not be hindered by prior commercial installations.
    • Enrich the play area with a diversity of activities to avoid risky behavior due to boredom. Events should not be limited to physical challenges but also include activities that exercise a child's imagination and develops social and problem solving skills.
    • Allow children to explore their boundaries by letting them confront challenges at their own pace with guidance that instructs rather than places limitations. Intervene at a point when the child begins breaking established rules that are based on an a prior assessment of risk.
    • Keep the play area clear of toy debris by providing storage that is accessible to children. Encourage a sense of ownership by asking children to clean-up after themselves.

    Designing Playspaces

    In a playspace, a child can engage himself in a multitude of free-play activities. A playspace can occur anywhere and at anytime. But when a child's environment is altered by urban development and other modern constraints, his play activities become limited to specialized areas we recognize as playgrounds. Although a playground can never become a replacement for making sand castles on a beach or walking through the woods, it needs to at least provide some of the experiences encountered outside a fenced perimeter.

    Even in Hawaii where a natural environment abounds, children are constrained to institutional forms of play. Public schools and city parks do very little to engage kids in more than the most mundane physical activities. The typical layout of a playground is the presence of one or two composite structures that only a child under the age of five may find challenging. Fighting, boredom, and reckless behavior on the play yard is often a result of a short-sighted vision of how to design an outdoor playspace. (see Hawaii Playgrounds)

    As people begin discarding playground catalogs and start acknowledging their own intuition as well as a plethora of research in child development, a new image of playgrounds is beginning to emerge. These playspaces have a greater reliance upon landscaping than on equipment. They are evolving spaces which adjust to the interests of kids. They are also investments of dedication and concern rather than investments of scarce funding.

    The following are some of the guiding principles used when designing an enriched play environment:

    Access and Circulation - Is there adequate room for children to move with ease and engage in play events without excess obstruction or crowding?

    Diversity of Play - Can children find a wide range of group and independent activities to capture their immediate and future attention?

    Play Challenges - Are features used in the play space appropriate for the age group it is intended for? Is there a wide range of challenges for children with varied abilities?

    Multiplicity of Function - Do the features in the play space lend themselves to a variety of uses?

    Attraction - Do children find the entire play space inviting? Is there sufficient attention to natural materials and green spaces?

    Protective Measures - Are children visually accessible? Are potential injuries considered & adequately addressed?

    Longevity - Will the play space last and what maintenance schedule can be applied that will realistically be followed?

    The Demise of the Modern Playground

    The platform system that you see in most Hawaii public playgrounds was originally designed by Jay Beckwith, a pioneer playground designer in the 1970’s. His efforts eventually became the products now sold through every playground manufacturer who basically copycatted one another and were largely responsible for the issuance of design guidelines and standards by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). These guidelines created the legal backbone for potential lawsuits in the case of an injury on a playground that does not comply. The fear of lawsuits has outweighed the interest in creating play opportunities for children to the extent that most municipalities are afraid to obfuscate from what is prescribed by the manufacturers. Today there are nearly forty manufacturers in the US and Canada creating “safe” playgrounds while the level of hospitalized injuries has not changed. Even Mr. Beckwith now laments that the “cookie cutter” playground has severely limited play opportunities for children to the point that it creates more problems than it solves.