Balance and Game: Safety and challenge in the playground

“Mike, you climbed too high. Come down quickly.” “Amy, this is too dangerous.” When you hear similar words in the playground, do you feel familiar or take them for granted? This means that you may also grow up in such a safe environment protected by your parents. In other words, you definitely support the current playground equipment to reduce the structure of equipment, to lay wrapper cushions, to reduce the chance of children falling from heights, and other measures to increase safety. However, some people worry that such “safety” is threatening the healthy growth of children.

The development of playgrounds has accompanied the issue of safety. In 1821, the first major outdoor playground appeared in the United States. Subsequently, more and more playgrounds appeared and developed. However, until the mid-twentieth century, a large number of playgrounds caused an unprecedented problem, namely the rapid increase in the number of injuries related to playgrounds. In 1981, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released the first Handbook for Public Playground Safety. Then, The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) also created a standard for children’s playground and their equipment in 1990. The emergence of standardized playgrounds solved children’s accidental injuries caused by equipment in the playground, such as may cause head stuck the gap between the dwellings, objects, or railings may cause cuts.

Image1. Head stuck the gap of dwelling

However, this has also led to another problem, the overcorrection of safety issues by adults. Slogans like “No Running” began to appear in some playgrounds. Although we are very clear, in most cases, such a slogan is a joke, an extreme case. But it exposes the excessive handling of safety issues by parents who are worried about their children being injured and playground designers and builders who are worried about taking responsibility. “The risk is negative, so it must be avoided.” This is the view of some proponents of risk minimization strategies. Unfortunately, studies have found that the growing trend of excessive protective safety measures increases year by year, and parents’ attention to safety has led to greater restrictions on children’s independent activities.

Image2. “No Running” Signal

However, children want to adventure. A study in Australia confirmed this. The study recruited 38 children aged 4-6 years in Sydney to interview them and observe their play in the playground. Although only about 30% of children have used high-challenging equipment such as flying fox, space net and tall tubular slide, about 80% of children said they had the opportunity to be very willing to try. This is because children always try to expand themselves through higher-risk challenging experiences. In addition, in a survey on children’s behaviour after injuries during play, 26% of children said they would avoid participating in this activity again. In contrast, the remaining children said they would try again independently or with the help of adults. This research proves that safety (in this case, non-major accidents), which parents are extremely worried about, is not considered by children. In fact, isn’t our parents like this? When they were young, they ventured into the mountains and fields, but now parents are very concerned about the slight scratches we receive, and they feel that we can’t control the risks of challenging games and bear their possible consequences.

Interestingly, there are many discussions about whether parents think their children have the ability to play independently. In the view of parents, they believe that once children gain more independence, there is a possibility that the risks in children’s play will increase. But the children are just the opposite. In a study in the United Kingdom, 93 children surveyed stated that they have the maturity to manage risks and regard minor injuries to take risks. This kind of child-like maturity may make people laugh, but children really should learn how to manage risk by themselves. In another British study, children believed that they should bear the primary responsibility for their safety, not their parents. Children can be aware of potential dangers. Children with risky play experience learned strategies to cope with risks in order to reduce the harm. In addition, some researchers have pointed out from the perspective of development that repeatedly and naturally gradually exposing themselves to stimuli and risks can improve children’s adaptability. At the same time, these researchers pointed out that if children are not provided with sufficient opportunities for risky and challenging games, they will not develop the ability to cope with risks and fears.

This point is the contradiction between the “safety” pursued by parents and builders and the adventure and challenge of children’s needs. However, compliance with standards and safety does not mean that playgrounds are no longer interesting and challenging. For landscape architects who design playgrounds, the real challenge should be to meet safety prerequisites and standard specifications. The design becomes an exciting game space. In addition, the playground should enable children to feel the danger and challenge while not really causing them danger. This design is also to improve children’s awareness of risks. If these two points can be met at the same time, it means that it is an excellent playground design.


Th Monash Adventure Park Playground in South Australia is an interesting case of this game. From the 1970s to the 1980s, a large number of children flocked to this most famous adventure playground in South Australia almost every day. With amazingly high slides, fox, revolving play equipment and much other bold play equipment, this wild playground has become a favourite of local children who love risks and challenges. However, in the early 1990s, the playground was forced to close due to insurance and injury claims made by tourists. After repairs, it reopened in 1996.

But this reopened playground stunned everyone who returned to it-it looked completely different from before. Although there are still shorter slides and swings that can be used, the past roller coasters and giant slides are gone. Instead, there are mazes and child-friendly seesaws. The old wooden and metal facilities were replaced by plastic, and the ground was covered with rubber coverings. “Visited a number of times when I was younger-now it seems to be a plastic place wrapped in cotton wool for the kids of today-so no interest in returning.” Those who grew up said so. The new amusement park makes old tourists so angry that the reconstruction of the amusement park has over-answered safety issues. It blindly pursues safety and avoids accidents. It takes this as the first criterion and ignores the important meaning of the playground itself, which is to bring children a game they can enjoy. Without the presence of children, what is the value of such a playground?

Image3. The huge slide in the past             Image4. Revolving play equipment in the past

Image5. The adventure playground nowadays     Image6. The maze in the playground nowadays

In summary, playgrounds are important places for children’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. The ability to explore and assess risks is also one of the important abilities of children’s development. When the environment allows children to safely explore their surroundings, conduct experiments, try new things, accept challenges and take risks, it will improve children’s development and the quality of play. Ideally, the game space should contain various physical, social and intellectual game elements and opportunities to interact with the natural environment. Modern playground equipment standards, such as AS 4685 Playground Equipment and Surfacing (Australian Standard), provide designers with safety standards when designing playgrounds. Playgrounds should avoid causing obvious hazards to children and at the same time put children at a controllable level of risk. Under such a premise, as much as possible, develop stimulating and challenging games that can satisfy children.

Fifty years ago, my father had a great adventure in the mountains; 20 years ago, I was churning on various climbing frames; but now, the children can only play on the thick cushions and play with the amusement equipment capable of no challenge? What about the future? In a future where “safety” issues become more serious and valued, do children have to stay at home to prevent them from encountering risks? Of course, this is just a terrifying assumption. Obviously, we can’t just focus on a certain aspect of the playground but should balance and coordinate them. The future of playground safety design and playability design still requires our landscape architects to continue to think.



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  2. Mcphee, Eliza. “Epic footage emerges of a free ‘adventure playground’ built in South Australia in the 1980s – but the ‘child-safe’ park that replaced it will infuriate you.” Daily Mail, published October 27, 2020. Accessed May 20, 2021.

  1. Standards Australia. 2004. Playground equipment. AS 4685:2004, Sydney: Standards Australia.


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