Safety concerns on playground apparatus

Guest post by Jenny Heitz

Playground safety has been a big news topic lately, and today reader Jenny is weighing in with her opinion.

Thankful November - Day 24 - Playtime!

The other day, a Facebook friend and high school acquaintance posted that her child had broken her arm in five places and was undergoing surgery. Her child had injured herself on the monkey bars at a local park.

Naturally, the mom was freaked about the surgery, upset about the pins that would have to be placed in her child’s arm, traumatized by the emergency room. I understand that completely. What I couldn’t understand was her next statement, which was along the lines of “I will be campaigning to have monkey bars removed from local schools and parks.”

My mind reeled. Children have broken bones and injured themselves since time began. It used to be a sort of rite of passage for children. But, as playground equipment has become more sanitized because of so-called safety (read: liability) issues, I hear about injuries less and less. On the face of it, less injury sounds like a good thing, right? But less injury actually might mean less meaningful play and comprehensive exercise. The United States is a nation of overweight children. Do we really need to remove apparatus from playgrounds because of the mere chance of an injury?

Here’s a grown-up example for you: my hobby is aerial static trapeze. I’m totally obsessed with it, have been training for about a year and a half, and recently performed at an open air street fair in Los Angeles. My performance was great, but when I came down for a landing, I blew out my ACL in my left knee. The rehab has been annoying, but I’m back at class after a month off.

Now, when this unfortunate injury occurred, did I blame the event? Did I blame the apparatus, or my aerial arts school? Did I declare the trapeze unsafe for everyone because of a freak injury I suffered? Of course not. Injuries happen, and the possibility of an injury is there every time you do anything physical, from walking down the street to swinging from a trapeze to standing in the shower.

This same logic applies to children. They are physical beings. They will do risky things. Most of the time, they’ll be fine. Every so often, though, they get injured. And so it goes with the monkey bars.

I am not trivializing my Facebook friend’s anxiety over her child. Surgery is no joke. She has every right to be upset and ask for support from friends and family. And she certainly can demand that her child, from this day forward, refrain from swinging from the monkey bars. But… that’s a rule for her child. It shouldn’t be a policy for everyone else’s child.

Comments on Safety concerns on playground apparatus

    • Erm, Eva. That’s the article linked at the top of the post, where it says: “Playground safety has been a big news topic lately (John Tierney recently wrote about it for the New York Times), and today reader Jenny is weighing in with her opinion.” πŸ™‚

  1. We JUST discussed playgrounds at our house last night — a friend is a nanny and hung out at a good one with her ward yesterday. All agreed that playgrounds are the BEST exercise.

    It’s sad to see the sanitation of playgrounds in the US and not giving kids a place to hone skills like balance and strength will result in more injuries for adults down the road, at a time when bodies are less able to heal.

    And just for fun: I broke my arm on a playground in 4th grade. I was running and fell and the thing just snapped. Sad trombone! But nothing could have prevented that injury.

  2. Monkey bars are integral to childhood! I mean, I was usually too tall for them, but it was fun none the less. Getting hurt is part of being human. I accidentally put my arm through a window when I was 10 and required two layers of stitches. Should windows on swinging doors be banned? Of course not! Playing is learning, learning to be coordinated and to be active too. If a child gets hurt, then yes it is scary and painful, but they’ve just learned that in life there are very real consequences to mistakes and carelessness. A person has every right to ask their child not to use monkey bars, but to tell others to do the same? Not so much.

  3. I have discussed this with some friends recently and I agree with you. In my opinion, playgrounds need to be a place where children are able to calculate risks on their own. If there is no (or very little) risk, then a very valuable aspect of playground play is eliminated. As long as playground equipment is in good working order and there are safety measures like having sand or rubber chips under it, I feel it is totally appropriate. Aside from that, it should be the role of the caregiver to decide what risks they are comfortable with their children taking. Thanks for posting this!

  4. Reporting from Amsterdam: the play structures are incredible here and not just because they’re wickedly designed, but because they’re actually a little dangerous. Three story high climbing structures, swinging Indiana Jones-esque bridges, actual tree houses hidden up high in the trees…you get the drift. It’s sad that kids are missing out on those thrills back home because of an overly litigious, extra cautious minority.

    • Playgrounds in the USA used to be awesomely cool and a little risky, with Indiana Jones bridges (love the description!), tire swings, huge metal slides, and, best of all, merry-go-rounds. I haven’t seen a merry-go-round in years, probably because they’ve been branded “too dangerous.”

      • There’s a great merry-go-round at Green Lake, in Seattle. It’s so wonderful to find one! The kids and I also recently discovered a real, honest-to-god seesaw at a park. We were thrilled!

        • There’s also one at Seward Park, which was recently remodeled to include a zip line (they also have a zip line at Mount Baker Park). Maybe Seattle is where these things are?

          • I have played on the Seward Park zip line in the middle of the night so many times! I feel guilty using during the day when kids are playing!

  5. wow. i did EXACTLY this when i was six — fell off the bars, broke my arm and mangled my elbow, had pins in for a few months, still have the scars.

    i’m sure it hurt like hell at the time, but pain is not what i remember. i remember choosing my anesthesia gas flavor (bubblegum) and getting get-well cards from all my classmates. i remember physical/occupational therapy and my frustration that i couldn’t have the kind of cast my classmates could sign.

    while hardly one of the best experiences of my life, it was nonetheless integral in my childhood. if you arrive at 18 without some bumps and bruises and battlescars, you’re not doing it right. why should we deprive children of the opportunity to learn to gauge and respond to physical risks themselves? it definitely made ME stronger…

      • We put a little flavor on the anesthesia mask to help counter the smell of the the fresh plastic mask (smells like a beach ball or new shower curtain) and the anesthetic gas. At Seattle Children’s we use strawberry, orange, bubblegum and root beer. Most of us anesthesiologists think orange is the best because it’s pure orange oil and doesn’t smell as icky sweet as the others. So if your child is too young to choose for themselves, ask for orange!

      • I still haven’t broken a bone *knocks on wood*, but I had my fair share of cuts, scrapes, bumps and bruises before I was 18! (Including a knee injury from figure skating that affected the growth plate)

        Like someone else said, the bumps and bruises are what forms a child, their character, personality, and especially what they decide is safe or dangerous.

  6. Ai yi yi! I think as parents we want to take away all the things that can hurt our kids because a.) it’s scary for us and them b.) it’s EXPENSIVE to get hurt. But, kids get hurt. They just do. It’s fine to fix the way something operates if it it’s repeatedly harming kids (no more drop down crib sides) but if kids are essentially hurting themselves when playing with/on a thing, such as monkey bars, the best I think you can do is be there to help and teach them to play as safely as they’re able.

    I have this huge concern that by removing everything from my son’s life that could harm him and always stepping in before he experiences a negative consequence that once he is bigger and I’m not there he really won’t be safe with his body. Does that make sense? Let them fall and falter in a controlled setting and they’ll learn from it. Build them a padded room and they might just jump through a wall and really hurt themselves one day.

  7. I don’t have kids yet (but I’m three months pregnant) and it already makes me sad that my kid won’t be able to experience things that I loved as a child. From the time I was around 7 or 8 years old, I wandered around the neighborhood with a roving band of children, doing dangerous things like jumping out of swings, walking through slippery creek beds and doing ridiculous gymnastics on the playground. Did we sometimes get scrapes and bruises, maybe even a broken bone? Sure, but I don’t think anyone thought twice about it. Now, I feel like my child would probably be the only one out there these days if I told them to go out and play without my supervision.

    Also, I broke my ankle running through the grass as a kid. I just slipped and broke it. Perhaps children shouldn’t be allowed to run in grass anymore.

  8. We were living in Germany until recently, and I couldn’t WAIT for my son to get old enough to play on the playgrounds there. Much like the ones Jess is describing, they were all incredibly fun… and incredibly likely to incite a lawsuit in the US. Even the indoor playgrounds were amazing. When our request to stay for a second tour was denied, I was soooo bummed to have to bring my child back to the Land of Superoverprotection.

    In order to keep a bit of rough-and-tumble in my kid’s life, I bought a book called “The Art of Roughhousing”- it’s brilliant.

  9. I broke my arm falling from monkey bars in 4th grade. No regrets!

    I broke it again in 8th grade by falling over on a slick sidewalk. I wasn’t even walking, let alone running… I just fell over and landed wrong. Kids will hurt themselves with or without monkey bars.

  10. In my hometown there was an accident where a small child slipped through the wooden beams in a playground log-cabin tent and died because the child’s helmet got caught. The child’s parents, in trying to prevent injury, actually caused it. I can understand wanting to protect your kid, I really, really can. But I agree, we need to think about what we’re really doing and how best to protect kids. I would never let a child wander alone in the city the way I did growing up in the country but I also would want them to experience some play and to also learn the hard way occasionally. I strained my ankle, skinned my knees, skinned my elbow, etc growing up. Most of that was during play. I also ate dirt, got sick, made friends, got hurt. Putting kids in a bubble to keep them from getting hurt isn’t necessarily a good thing.
    (Yes, I agree that equipment that is rotted, rusty, broken, etc, should be replaced and you shouldn’t let your kids eat bad things or go into dangerous situations. But I think it’s sort of a level of common sense that we’re losing, instead being left with the inability to see when kids need to fall down, get hurt, fail, get into trouble, etc.)

  11. I recently visited my home town park/zoo (We had the first monkey in space, represent!) and was disappointed to find that the amazing wooden barrel-like playground contraption that you could get inside of and walk to make it spin (saaaafe) was gone. Two broken fingers and fifteen million splinters are all I have to show for it. *sigh*

  12. It must be a European thing πŸ™‚
    I am very passionate about this subject, and I’ve read just about every post on this blog,

    One playground that caught my eye was Glamis Adventure Playground in the UK:
    “One playscape with ‘real stuff’ is Glamis Adventure Playground, where a boat lies beached on sandy shaols near the entrance. The kids get to do real stuff as well; roasting courgettes over a fire, learning to repair bicycle tires, and adding to the playground themselves. A delightful cacophony of self-build and self-color, noise, dirt, and madness beckons from way down a street of plain brick facades in a challenging area of East London.” The link is here:

    There are numerous posts about how sterilized our US play experiences have become, and it is a tough thing to swallow as the mama to an adventurous 20 month old. I love that he’s wild and a willing little daredevil. We went to one local playground where every single surface was painted gray and covered in plastic and rubber. GRAY! It broke my rainbow-lovin’ heart. At our house, I try to encourage ‘polite chaos’ and adventure as much as possible.

    • I don’t think it’s a European thing. I mean, looking at the pictures someone posted above are all over my city and surrounding cities in my province in Canada. There’s less of them, sure, but they do exist.

      • I can’t speak for Canada, but this type of play area is not common in the US. From what I have seen, these ‘dangerous’ play experiences seem to be much more prevalent in western Europe, although that certainly doesn’t limit them to Europe only. Congrats if this is your norm though, I’m jealous!

        • The US is a big place – there are a lot of structures and parks that look like the above-linked pictures in Seattle. We’ve got parks with merry-go-rounds, zip lines, tall structures with wooden bridges, and other things.

  13. I found a playground with a merry-go-round a while back and was ecstatic, I loved them as a kid and couldn’t wait to share it with my boy (4 & 5) who had never seen one before!

  14. In the 90’s when my brother was around two he dive-bomed off the playground head first into the cement holding the sliding pole up and almost died because his skull cracked open. Now that they use that soft impact stuff, I doubt that happens anymore. There has got to be a nice middle ground where we get rid of truly dangerous things like cement (which I know they don’t use anymore) but keep only mildly dangerous things like monkey bars. Playgrounds are always a calculated risk, and that’s okay as long as the risk is kept at a reasonable level.

    • Thank you for sharing a story that isn’t “I had monkey bars and lived! See, it’s fine!” The ones that don’t live through it? Aren’t here to tell us their stories. I knew a boy that fell out of one of those “cool” huge tree houses in the late ’80s in a park in south Texas and died – he was impaled on smaller tree.

      I agree, some risk mitigation is probably good. I also agree that safety-only equipment is probably not as active or fun.

  15. How very timely as I got a call today from my 6 yo’s school that at recess today she fell off the monkey bars head first. I was told she was fine but they wanted to give me a heads up before she came home.

    After making sure she was fine, I told her I don’t want her playing on the monkey bars for now. Never in a million years would it have dawned on me to even think about having monkey bars removed. Strange!

  16. Accidents happen, right? No matter how safe you try to make the world…

    That’s how I view it. But I can totally relate to the shock of the mom that sees her child in surgery.

  17. My favorite playground in my hometown was a wonderful Sputnik era one – featuring a three story high metal rocket ship you could climb up in and take a slide out of – there were also planets and a smaller space shuttle on the side. It was recently taken down and replaced with a plastic one. It made me soo sad. I feel like a lot of creativity is being lost with these new “safe” playgrounds.

  18. My daughter broke her arm when she tripped whilst trotting across the living room. She was three at the time and she didn’t trip over anything but the floor. She just landed weird like kids/people sometimes do. It’s nobody’s fault. It was just something that happened and I dealt with it. We can’t ban everything that is a potential danger (like carpeted floors or moving faster than a snail’s pace, as in the case of my daughter). Part of growing up is taking risks (physical feats as well as those that are non-life-or-limb-threatening) and learning from them.

    Breaking her arm turned into a great excuse to teach her the names of some of the major bones in her body. Her doctor was uber-impressed when she went to get her cast off and she told him that she had broken her radius and ulna. πŸ™‚ Two+ years later, she still has a fascination with anatomy and body systems. Who knows when I would’ve learned that my child is interested in medical science if that mishap hadn’t occurred.

  19. I think these conversations fall into the (somewhat) same category as the discussion of never wanting our children to feel disappointment/frustration/sadness but how learning how to cope with those feelings is something necessary to development. Now, I’m not saying a broken arm is necessary to development but learning from out experiences of testing our boundaries and limitations is. Of course, I’m not saying, let’s purposefully hurt our children just like I would never purposefully make my son feel frustrated as a “learning experience,” but I think the US (in general) has forgotten we need to let our kids learn by doing. And sometimes learning by doing means getting hurt or disappointed (or gets expensive/scary for us). Like previous posters, there’s a line and a balance that needs to be drawn.

    My grandpa always says freedome is the “right to be stupid” — which, more nicely put, I think he means freedom to make our choices about life (even if those are sometimes the wrong or risky choices) and to learn from them. It’s sad to see so much law and litigation go into effect that take our opportunities away.

  20. Slashed open my arm tripping up the front steps into the screen door. 6 years old. So we need ramps now? Adult play grounds are dangerous too husband broke his heel bone on a zipline in a back yard. Friend broke lower leg bone the fibula that same night. Both were stone sober.

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