Seesaws are out, saws are in: the (welcome) rise of risky playgrounds

Research has shown that risky play is good for kids, and tools, cars, and even prickly shrubs are being added to adventure playgrounds.

Can you imagine your kid’s frustration, when you tell them they can’t go to an  Adventure playground? The foot stomp. The immortal: “But all my friends are going!” 

The Yard in New York City uses real nails and hammers. It’s made entirely from junk. Some bits of old wood. Spare bicycle tires. Metal ladders. Pallets. Parents aren’t even allowed in. For your children, you will need to sign a liability release. There are also saws. Proper handsaws. Who gives them to children?! 

Yoni Kallai for starters. As the head player at The YardEvery week, he gives saws and many other tools to children. They can then get to work building, exploring, and destroying whatever they like. It’s their play space. 

“I hear kids themselves say stuff like: ‘Oh, you can’t trust kids with saws,’ while they’re running with a saw,” says Kallai. “But everything’s fine, nobody’s getting hurt: they’re just repeating the messaging that they’ve internalised.” 

The Governors Island playground is just one of a growing number of children’s spaces where risk is being reintroduced. The thinking? That if we encounter risk when we’re young, we learn how to navigate tricky situations when we’re older. 

A 2015 reportExperts in Canada support the idea. Researchers discovered that risky outdoor play has positive health effects for children aged three to twelve years. These include increased social interaction, creativity, and resilience. 

Adventure playgrounds

The Yard lets kids experiment with all types of junk, from tyres to scrap wood. Ginny Jings

“At normal playgrounds, the kids are sometimes more reckless, because they have these rubberised mats,” points out Kallai. “It gives a false perception that you can do whatever and you’ll be fine. The kids on our playground can see more of the risks and from there they act in a more mature, responsible manner.” 

“There’s plenty of research to say this kind of outdoor, unstructured, loosely supervised play is beneficial [to children],” says Gemma Goldenberg, a research and learning specialist at the Chartered College of Teaching, based in UCL, London. 

In fact a 2011 studyIt was found that children are more likely to be obese and suffer from mental health issues if they are subjected to too many restrictions regarding risky play. It could also hinder learning, perception, and judgment. As a design approach, it’s arguably more prescient than ever, when children are spending more and more time indoors. 

The Yard is a place where children can conquer fear and take calculated risks. Ginny Jnnings

And even insurance companies agree: in 2020, the DGUV – the umbrella association of statutory accident insurers in Germany – called for more adventure playgrounds that teach children to develop “risk competence”. 

“It’s important that children learn how to manage risks and find what they’re comfortable with,” says Goldenberg “Development happens in that zone of ‘proximal development’, where you’re slightly stretched outside of what you would do without somebody there to help you.” 

Risks v hazards  

Risky play, however, isn’t just about letting kids go off and do whatever they want. It is defined as such by the Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education (Norway) A child is able recognize and evaluate a problem before they can decide how to act. This could include playing at heights, at high speeds, or using dangerous tools. This includes rough-and-tumble play and getting lost. 

Kallai and his staff at The Yard in New York know the difference between a danger and a hazard. Let’s take the ladder as an example. “When we have a ladder out, some kids will not even touch the ladder. Some will only go one step up, while others will go all the ways. That’s them choosing the risk level that they feel like taking,” he explains. “Whereas if the ladder looks intact, but in fact will collapse once the child plays on it, that is a hazard, that they’re not anticipating. We try to remove the hazards, but leave the risks.” 

Tumbling Bay at the Olympic Park in London has also been given the name “Risk”. Image: LUC

This allows children to explore their surroundings and to make decisions together. Playworkers are careful not to interrupt the flow of play. They don’t offer unsolicited advice. This autonomy is particularly helpful for older children, Goldenberg believes. 

“When they’re toddlers and pre-schoolers, they have quite a lot of opportunities for role play and open-ended play,” she notes. “But once they get to school age and beyond, all their outdoor time tends to be organised sports or structured after-school activities.” 

Planned adventure playgrounds aren’t new. Indeed, Copenhagen’s Emdrup Junk Playground was the first to open in 1942. Conceived by the Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sørensen, it did away with the traditional four S’s – swing, slide, sandpit and seesaw – and instead used ‘waste material’ such as old cars, boxes and wood to encourage child-led play. 

People have started to understand the importance of risk in children’s development

At their peak, there were estimated to be nearly 1,000 adventure playgrounds in Europe, including 400 in Germany, such as Berlin’s Kolle 37, which permits open fires and has animals onsite. In the UK, Somerford Grove in the London borough of Haringey, and Indigos Go Wild – in Torbay, Devon – are both still in operation. 

The most important step forward in playground design today is to add the excitement of adventure playgrounds, which are safer-first playgrounds. Jennette Emery Wallis, a British designer, is leading this charge. 

“When I started out, [playground design] was completely risk-averse and everything was about insurance and liability,” says Emery-Wallis, director of landscape architecture at UK environmental consultancy LUC. “But people have started to understand the importance of risk in children’s development. Play has a good future.” 

Emery-Wallis designed the Tumbling Bay playground at the Olympic Park in London, and it’s easy to spot where risky play has been added. There are bridges to cross and ropes you can climb. Children can climb up trees and explore the twisted timber paths. Few UK playgrounds offer something like this.

‘Play has a good future,’ says Jennette Emery-Wallis, who designed Tumbling Bay. Image: LUC

“Obviously we all want to protect our children – every parent wants to do that – but putting them in bubble wrap is not helping them,” says Emery- Wallis. “Kids should get dirty. They should fall over and hurt themselves.” 

Many do at Tumbling BayAlthough injuries can be serious, they are rare, with the exception of one broken ankle. Here, kids will also encounter poisonous plants such as gorse, foxglove, and other prickly or poisonous plants, just like they would in nature. These were intentionally added. 

“Kids have got to learn,” says Emery-Wallis. “I’m clearly not going to put something that’s going to kill them on the spot.” 

Children should get dirty. They should be able to fall and injure themselves.

Adults may need to learn some things. Back at The Yard, parents are sometimes allowed in during pop-up events – but the results of this happening have been mixed. 

“The kids tend to stay within the family setting and interact less with each other,” says Kallai. “Often it is a father who ends up building a really big fort. The kid is just ripping pieces of tape, rather than the father supporting the child in their play.” 

And where’s the fun in that?

Main image: A child sees a football cut in half at The Yard. Ginny Jnnings