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Why safe playgrounds aren’t great for kids

There’s a case for making playgrounds riskier.

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The stereotypical modern playground — with its bright colors and rubberized flooring — is designed to be clean, safe, and lawsuit-proof. But that isn’t necessarily the best design for kids.

US playground designers spent decades figuring out how to minimize risk: reducing heights, softening surfaces, and limiting loose parts. But now, some are experimenting with creating risk. A growing body of research has found that risky outdoor play is a key part of children’s health, promoting social interactions, creativity, problem-solving, and resilience.

Some communities are even experimenting with “adventure playgrounds,” a format with origins in World War II Denmark, where bomb sites became impromptu playgrounds. Filled with props like nails, hammers, saws, paint, tires, and wood planks, these spaces look more like junkyards than play spaces — and parents are often kept outside of the playground while children are chaperoned by staff. Now, that question of keeping children safe versus keeping children engaged is at the heart of a big debate in playground design.

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