Healthy Outdoor Playspaces

Photo Karen Graham. Millbrook South Cavan’s Outdoor Classroom is a modern play space that is stimulating and challenging.

“Play is what we do when no adult is telling us what to do.”

Play has a critical role in child development.  The benefits are not limited to physical ones such as improved motor skills.  As children navigate the physical and social environment of play areas, they develop cognitive and social skills resulting in improved negotiation, conflict resolution and self-advocacy skills, greater creativity and imagination, improved mood and reduced stress and anxiety, and ultimately greater independence.

Designers of children’s playspaces walk a line between risk and safety as they develop environments that motive users to get active, explore their environment and gain confidence in their skills and judgement.  Children’s safety is of course the top concern of those responsible for the design, installation and supervision of public playground spaces.  In Peterborough, our results in that department have been less than stellar.   A study conducted in 2011 showed that across all age categories and by a wide margin, children in the Peterborough area made more visits to emergency departments for injuries from falls from playground equipment that year than other parts of the province.  For example, in the age bracket of children aged 0-4, 424 children per 100,000  landed in emergency departments after a fall from playground equipment in Peterborough, compared to a rate of 152 per 100,000 in Toronto, and 251 in Ontario as a whole.  This information drove Monique Beneteau, Health Promoter with Peterborough Public Health, to gather evidence on best practices for playground safety in an effort to improve those statistics and ensure local playspaces offer safe and meaningful opportunities for our children.

Last weekend, Beneteau presented her report entitled “Healthy Complete Outdoor Playspaces: A Journey from Problem to Policy” outlining local efforts to develop a healthy, complete outdoor playspaces at the 20th International Play Association (IPA) Triennial World Conference in Calgary, Alberta.

Her report includes a checklist on playground equipment and safety which incorporated other components of public health interest, such as cancer-preventing features including the amount of shade over equipment and status as a smoke-free environment.  During her research, municipal staff expressed an interest in moving the discussion beyond maintaining playground equipment toward creating healthy play “experiences,”  leading to a more extensive review of the evidence, focusing on the benefits of play and how it relates to child development, risky play, risk benefit assessments, and natural playspaces. The report will be used by a wide range of community partners including municipalities and school boards as they develop, modify and manage the use of play facilities throughout Peterborough County.

After the purge of jungle gyms and tire swings to strip out the risk in traditional outdoor play areas in playgrounds around the country in 2000, the resulting playgrounds have become boring and underutilized.  Kids are looking for challenging activities that encourage them to navigate and master the unfamiliar.  Risky play proponents challenge us to think of creating play environments that are “as safe as necessary” as opposed to as safe as possible.  Beneteau suggests that outdoor playspaces should elements of risky play offering opportunities for children to play at heights, test their balance and co-ordination and participate in rough and tumble play.  She suggests that preventing children from playing in outdoor playspaces because of potential harm may replace the risk of physical injury with other risks such as poorer physical and mental health in both the short- and long-term.

In addition to incorporating a bit of risk into outdoor playareas is another movement to enrich children’s learning and play by incorporating natural areas into the playscape.  The non-profit International School Grounds Alliance (ISGA) is a global network of organizations promoting natural play environments and materials that offer a richer experience and are more inclusive, gender-neutral and accessible to a broader range of ages and abilities and encourage more active and creative play.

This group would approve of some of the recent additions to school grounds in Canada, which feature natural items such as rock walls and wooden posts that introduce risk into the playground construction.  Peeling away the current tendency towards overprotection will help children develop problem-solving and conflict management skills, develop resiliency and leadership skills, as well as building physical strength. The organization would also approve of the Outdoor Education area in Millbrook South Cavan School, where students have the opportunity to explore a natural environment featuring trees and water.

This doesn’t mean there is no place for traditional playground equipment, but equipment is only valuable if children use it.  Research suggests that introducing loose parts and incorporating more green space will enhance the play experience.

As for risk, it is seen as an essential component of healthy child development.  Playground injuries are inevitable and the majority of those injuries will be minor and are a natural part of life and will help children make the critical connection between decisions and their consequences. KG

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