There’s no doubt that playgrounds are much safer now than they were forty or fifty years ago. Playground surfaces, for example, are now made of such soft and springy materials, children bounce like rubber balls each time they fall down. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad children no longer bruise their tailbones every time they play on a teeter totter, like I did when I was little. But what I miss about the playgrounds of my youth were all the incredibly tall slides. I remember a neighborhood park with a huge slide shaped like a rocket ship. I swear it was three stories tall. When you climbed to the top you could look out and see the whole town.
Recently, with the release of my new book Creating a Beautiful Mess, I’m often asked about the value of outdoor play. People seem especially interested in the concept of “risky play” that I describe in the book. Risky play happens when children have a chance to really challenge themselves to run fast, climb high, and do spontaneous things like throw rocks in a muddy puddle, without their parents shushing them and warning “Be careful now…”
These conversations about risky play made me revisit my ideas about how children today can still experience the crazy joy of climbing and sliding and running and playing with abandon. In Creating a Beautiful Mess, I wrote about adventure playgrounds in Europe, where children play outdoors with “loose parts” – old tires, wood planks, ropes, etc. In adventure playgrounds children can build their own playscapes and structures. Even without access to a true adventure playground, children can do this kind of open-ended play in their own backyards, using materials like buckets, crates and old lawn furniture to build forts or obstacle courses.
Thinking creatively about outdoor play, especially in more urban environments, has also made me wonder if the increase in safety regulations that limit playground design may have something to do with the rise in popularity of parkour among teens and young adults. Parkour is part fitness activity and part creative invention. Parkour involves running, climbing, vaulting, swinging, rolling and all kinds of other movements that get your body from one place to another, over obstacles and around buildings, similar to the way action heroes maneuver in films and television shows or the way soldiers train in the military. Parkour enthusiasts use the urban landscape of brick walls, dumpsters and parked cars the way young children use a playground.
Want to learn more about parkour? Check out this video below. But folks, please don’t try this at home.