Are Playground Injuries Really Where We’re Hurting Most?

Last week Canada’s national public broadcaster, CBC, aired an item on playground injuries. The lead pretty much summed it all up, a numbers story that fell short on broader context.

“More than 28,000 children are injured every year on playgrounds across Canada, and the rate of hospitalizations has gone up by eight per cent between 2007 and 2012, CBC News has learned.”

CBC Playground Injuries copy

One thing is sure, no one wants to see a child injured. I live in Halifax, Canada a city with more than 300 playgrounds. My kids and I have played at about 50. They’re well maintained, mostly of the predictable off the shelf variety that address safety concerns and are light on excitement. In the last few years, I don’t recall any media reports about serious injuries.

Now I’m sure we can make playgrounds safer. How about thick foam landing mats as ground covering like those that welcome pole vaulters as they fall earthward, or maybe getting kids suited up in protective gear? While I don’t want to make light of safety concerns, overzealousness on the safety scale reduces the ability of kids to experience and assess risk on their own. For a great resource on risk and play, read Tim Gill’s No Fear – Growing up in a risk averse society (free download).

I was disappointed in the CBC story and felt shortchanged. How many injuries occurr in homes, automobiles, skater parks? Where do playgrounds fit in the kid injury stats? Fortunately, others were thinking along the same lines including Chris Selley who shared her perspective in the National Post’s Full Comment section of the paper.

“For 2010, the CIHI database of major injury hospitalizations contains 1,918 patients under the age of 20. Of those injuries, 387 (20%) were caused by falls. And of those 387 falls, just 12 (3%) involved playground equipment.”

The tenor of the CBC item may have left some parents alarmed, not to speak of cash strapped municipal governments whose capital budgets are the primary bankers for playground design, installation and maintenance.

DSC07730Halifax’s submarine playground, one of the few custom designs in the city

In truth though, the casualty here has to do with not reporting the bigger story – children are spending less and less time outdoors in self directed, independent play. It is not clear what long term repercussions will result from this societal shift that started taking place decades ago.

During the same week the CBC item was aired, two articles were published in the US. In the magazine aeon, Peter Gray wrote about the changing face of play in his article, The Play Deficit. He brings a researcher’s rigour to the subject.

“Over the same decades that children’s play has been declining, childhood mental disorders have been increasing.”

In The Atlantic Cities, writer Sarah Goodyear reflected on Gray’s article in her piece entitled Why our kids need play, now more than ever. Her conclusion is forceful.

“The problem is so deep and systemic that it must be addressed at all levels of society, beginning with the family. If you have kids, ask yourself if they are getting enough time to explore and run around.”

It was a great week for play in the US. This past weekend saw people gathering in Pennsylvania to promote and discuss The Philadelphia Declaration of Play. Click here if you would like to sign the Declaration or just find out more about this initiative.

Philly Declaration of PlaySome members of the Philadelphia Declaration of Play project

North America is not alone in the diminishing play scenario. The UK has a well documented challenge to contend with also. Take a look at Play England’s Love Outdoor Play campaign then ask yourself where the greater benefit lies. Is it in shining the light on the value of increasing independent play opportunities and addressing the root causes of its decline in the digital age, or is it in the relentless pursuit of safety at playgrounds?

With all due respect to those who have suffered playground injuries (and those who report on them), there is no doubt that safety issues are important, but we need to get at where we’re really hurting on a much more significant level – the shrinking role of play in our children’s lives.

Editor’s note – I was contacted by one of the reporters doing research for the national component of the CBC story. During a 20 to 30 minute conversation, I offered information on risk as it relates to play, suggested designers who provide alternatives to modular, ‘off the shelf’ playground equipment and pointed out other well established play traditions such as Europe’s adventure playgrounds that differ dramatically from the Canadian experience.

I followed up this conversation with an email that provided additional resources. Given that all my prior experiences speaking about play and playgrounds with CBC had been very positive, I was surprised that none of the background, particularly the linkages to risk as it relates to play, saw the light of day. I had been invited to do an on-air interview for the regional item coming out of Halifax but unfortunately this fell through due to scheduling conflicts.

I do hope there will be subsequent opportunities for CBC to examine the decline of independent play and its causes as well as the work that is being undertaken in Canada and around the world on behalf of kids to reverse this trend.

9 responses to “Are Playground Injuries Really Where We’re Hurting Most?

  1. Well said. We need more people speaking out on this important issue. Should be mandatory reading in all ECE programs and Teacher’s Colleges.

  2. Pingback: Are Playground Injuries Really Where We’re Hurting Most? | Halifax Plays

  3. I do not agree with any discussion that the concern over safety issues and the resulting affect on playground design has played a major roll in the decline of outdoor play. I believe children, if they have the desire and given the opportunity, will play on almost any apparatus or environment available. Look closer at societal changes, fast food, working parents, video, TV., I-Phones, video games, organized sports, increased educational expectations, etc.. Your time would be better spent.

    • Thanks Bob. I don’t believe the post presents the argument you’re suggesting. I’m talking about the value of kids encountering and working through risk. No one wants to see kids injured unnecessarily.

  4. Pingback: Safeguarding School Recess: What’s Getting in the Way of Child’s Play? | Educhatter's Blog

    • Hi Paul – thanks for dropping in on PlayGroundology. Recess is an interesting topic. When I was kid, my only real recurring thought about it was that it was way too short. We must make sure that educators never become zealous enough to threaten recess here in Nova Scotia. It has happened in other jurisdictions. In some, kids no longer get out to play but they have plenty of time to prepare for standardized testing. Re connecting with someone at HRSB, I’ll find out who you might be able to speak with. Cheers, Alex

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