The quintessential problem of our day: playgrounds are too safe

It is hard to imagine a more contrarian statement than, “playground safety is bad,” but that is the case I will make. Children deserve the right get hurt on playground equipment.

You may assume that my title is being facetious, using hyperbole for effect. I am not being hyperbolic. I am dead serious.

There is an war ongoing on America’s playgrounds that you are probably not aware of. Playgrounds do not look the way you likely remember them from when you were a kid. No more metal slides, seesaws, roundabouts, even monkey bars, or any of the classic playground equipment. To comply with regulations, dirt is replaced with mulch or padding, while wood and metal are replaced by plastic (a building material I’d loath even if it wasn’t synonymous with artificial). In every school, the older children recount stories about how “awesome” the playground “used to be” before “that one kid’s stupid parents complained.”

What playgrounds used to look like:

And here is what the look like now. Reporting as a former young child, they are more photogenic than fun:

As a young child, I identified a phenomenon where the kids would act more reckless and engage in more risky play on the more padded and sanitized play equipment. “Safer” equipment makes it look like you don’t have to make an effort to be careful. If you were young, on which of these two environments are you try harder to be careful?

Additionally, children will go to riskier and rowdier lengths to desperately extract entertainment from equipment that does not lend itself to fun. After all, what is fun but the sensation of risk? What is play but practice engaging with that sensation? The “play as practice” idea makes sense from the view of evolutionary psychology. It’s why even animals will engage in play fighting. Play has to consist of something other than standing around.

Meanwhile, school administrators create increasingly draconian and overprotective recess rules. “Tag” breaks two common rules: the rule against running, and the rule against physical contact. They are “dangerous” and “inappropriate,” some schools even banned the concept of best friends for being “exclusionary” (there are real cases).

A key concept to my argument is the notion of “anti fragility.” I have written about it before, but here’s a recap. “Antifragile” is not robustness. It does not mean that you are impervious to adversity. Instead, something that is antifragile actively benefits from adversity. For example, a muscle is antifragile because it grows stronger after you damage it. Children, as developing organisms, are antifragile.

The best way to teach someone is not to merely explain how to do things. It is to actively and repeatedly let them fail, to assess their failure, and persist. That is how you nurture mental and physical toughness.

My elementary school playground had multiple dedicated full-time monitors. This was psychotic. There were people who’s full time job was to supervise and patrol my schools playground with loudspeakers, yelling at kids to be safe. You had better not run into one when you were playing; even if you were playing completely safe, they would find something to yell at you about, because that was their whole job. (They would also steal a good chunk of your play time to line everyone up and make them be quiet, but that’s a tangent).

I recall one day when I was bored and playing by myself. I decided that the plastic of the slide was not slippery enough for it to be used as an actual side, and it would be more fun to climb it. I thought my eight year old self clever as I scaled that slide, before one of the safety monitors pulled me over. She asked my full name and teacher’s name. The next morning, a woman spoke over the loudspeaker to tell everyone in the school not to climb the slide.

Imagine if she had instead let me fall. Even if I did fall, I would not have been hurt to fall three feet into mulch. Falling from the slide could have taught me the dangers of climbing a slide, and by my own initiative, not by dictum.

Fortunately, I found myself with access to a less supervised playground a few weeks later. I climbed the equipment recklessly, only to fall quite a distance and bump my head on the ground. I was not injured, only shaken, but I learned the lesson that the playground monitor denied me.

A playground that creates scrapes and bruises is valuable. It teaches kids how to deal with scrapes, avoid bruises, and most importantly, to be resilient. What better place to let kids get hurt than the controlled environment of a playground? I’m not talking about life-changing injuries here, only a rejection of safety theater.

Which man do you think will more safely navigate adulthood’s inevitable dangerous situations: the man who was perpetually coddled in childhood, or the man who was allowed to fail? The answer is obvious. Making playgrounds safe doesn’t avoid risk, it delays it. This is why there is a fledgling movement of people trying to build risk back into playgrounds. If people are going to learn how to get hurt sooner or later, why not as children in a specially tailored environment?

About a year after the events of the last story, my mom let me loose on a giant pirate ship replica playground. That thing was awesome, and you could tell a lot of love was put into its creation. I bounced off its walls, and 10 minutes later, I had dozens of giant splinters over my body. My mom helped me remove them. Did she campaign to have the play set removed? I hope not! I learned then to be careful to avoid splinters. I would’ve been more careful in the first place if I hadn’t become used to the artificially safe variety of playground.

Two articles are essential for understanding this issue. The first is my article on the problem with empathy. When a child is hurt, it’s localized, whereas the benefits of risky playgrounds are more abstract. It is difficult to tell a parent that the ephemeral quality of fun and character-building could possibly measure up in importance to “my child’s safety!” Being a parent does not help that cost-benefit evaluation.

The second is Nassim Taleb’s article on the dictatorship of a small minority. To summarize: a minority of people that is vehemently opposed to something can be much more influential then a passive majority that is merely “ok” with that thing. In this case, the vast majority of parents don’t care about playgrounds, but it only takes one. It may seem foolish to replace a play set all to appease that one parent who lacks foresight and complains after her kid gets hurt. However, it is currently more practical for a school to simply give in, rather than risk legal claim if something does go wrong that, “you heard complaints and did nothing.”

As a child, I noticed among overprotective Americans an aversion to wood. My mom witnessed a teacher force a student to move a small stick from the playground mulch to the trash can. I felt bad for the other kids that were not allowed to so much as touch a stick. Some of the most fun I had was play fighting with the sticks from the woods. I resolved to run a litmus test on any future wife: will she allow her potential children climb trees?

Compellingly, Japanese playgrounds do not have this problem. Japanese playgrounds look like this:

Are the Japanese facing an epidemic off mass playground injuries? Of course not. What they have instead is children (what few they can birth) who grow up to capable adults, not the cry-baby social activists.

More generally, Japanese have a different parental philosophy than Americans, significantly with regard to unsupervised time. Japanese children walk to school every day. Some in elementary school even ride the train alone every day. Meanwhile, American parents can get accused of child abuse for so much as letting their kids walk to the bus stop unattended.

I worry about the effect of constant supervision. It inculcates a slave mentality where there is no self determination, and even the most trivial of your affairs are overseen by an authority figure. Obsessive compulsive vigilance is suffocating and breeds dependence. Will this affect the political views of a generation that is trained to scream for to the authorities rather than fight their own battles?

This is a topic that sociologist Jonah Haidt covers in his book The Coddling of the American Mind.

For a subset of a new generation, sensitivity is not a pejorative but the highest of virtues. They virtue signal by exaggerated offense-taking. They are not rebellious young people, but rather demand speech codes to protect “marginalized” people from “trauma.” They see everything through the lens of victim and oppressor. You are probably aware of this type of person, because those who call themselves “anti-SJWs” make fun of them for “demanding trigger warnings for microagressions in safe spaces.” You’ll have to trust me that their language of buzzwords goes beyond that.

Haidt is quick to stress that, according to survey data, this is a new phenomenon. If you graduated college before 2013, you quite simply have not seen the type of far-left social activists that reside on contemporary college campuses. Most adults who are aware of this movement do not know how new it is. It is a phenomenon so foreign, so wild, that I have a hard time knowing where to begin to explain it.

Haidt describes one contributing factor: the lack of unsupervised time.

People over 40 were asked, “when could you first go outside to play with your friends with no adult supervising?” They typically answered around 5-8. People under 25 were asked the same question, and answered 12-16. Nobody under 25 answered under 10. Haidt states:

In the 1990s, as the crime rate was plummeting, as American life was getting safer and safer, America’s freaked out and though that if they take their eyes off their children, the children will be abducted. The fear was stoked by cable TV in the 1980s. There were a few high-profile abductions. But it’s not until the 1990s that we really start locking kids up. “You cannot be outside until you’re 14 or 15.”

We took this essential time period from about 8-12 when kids throughout history have practiced independence, have gotten into adventures, have made rafts and floated down the Mississippi river… we took that period and said, “you don’t get to practice independence until it’s too late! Until that period is over.”

[When they] get off to college… a lot of them are not ready. They’re just not used to being independent. When they get to college, they’re asking adults for more help. “Protect me from this, punish him for saying that! Protect me from the book! [or that speech, or that lecture].” There is a very sharp change for kids who were born in 1995 and afterwards.

Haidt, answering about this topic, hilariously castigates his interviewers for being overprotective parents, and quizzes them on the specifics of their supervision. We will all pay for the poor parenting decisions of the generation that raised late millennial and (much of) Gen Z.

Haidt here begins with the fact that the newer generation is more likely to run to HR or school administrators when things offend them, rather than sort out situations themselves.

American child rearing changed so that there is always an adult [present], and the adult always solves the problems, and the whole point is you want to state your case to get the adult to punish “him,” not to let him get the adult to punish me.

Kids haven’t had the chance to learn to deal with insults, to learn to be excluded, [etc.]

This is a grand cultural change from resolving disputes between parties to vying to influence the authority figures.

Adults frequently complain about kids cooped up in their rooms getting fat playing video games. They fail to blame “child safety” activists. Kids don’t play outside because they don’t know how. There were not inculcated in that skill in their formative years.

But to make matters worse, nobody wants to play in an infantilized playground. Playground safety worsens the problem at the most critical age. No wonder they would rather stay cooped up inside! And don’t even get me started on anti-bullying initiatives.

If this issue were limited to the land occupied by playgrounds, I would not make a post about it. If this issue was limited to child safety, I would not stress it as much as I will. The main problem is one of paranoid, neurotic, and obsessive people trying to baby-proof the world, and others buying into the created illusion.

There is a general epidemic where everything in the west needs to be scrubbed of impurities, everything needs to be safe and inoffensive. Just as playgrounds are purged of wooden equipment, movies and mass media is purged of anything that is offensive to anyone, anywhere. Both phenomena are caused by the same things. We will add protective padding to every edge of our newly sterile and sanitized world until every last person is out of touch.