Bruises from playing outside? Good for child development!

Playing outdoors has countless benefits. It is healthy, it reduces stress and those who play outside less often need glasses. But there is more: by encouraging risky play in children, you also stimulate their cognitive, emotional and motor development. That is why Kirsten Visser, urban geographer at Utrecht University, and her colleagues are researching how the design of a playground contributes to risky play, and they are charting the experiences of children, parents and supervisors in a playground that encourages risky play.

Risky play is extremely important for children to learn how to assess risks and where their limits lie. In practice, however, it appears that the free - and thus risky - play of children is increasingly restricted. Playgrounds are built with the idea that children should hurt themselves as little as possible and therefore often consist of safe equipment and have rubber tiles. Especially in the city - where every square metre has to be used optimally - there is little room for playgrounds that offer more challenges. A study carried out by Kirsten Visser and her colleagues shows that it is precisely the creation of places that are too dull that causes children to lose interest in playing outdoors. "A worrying development if you ask me,” says Visser.

Children playing with branches
Children playing - credits BuurtLAB

Back seat generation

"Children's leisure time is increasingly controlled. They are transported on the back seat from school to the sports club or music lesson. Playing outside takes place in the context of out-of-school care, an environment that is controlled as much as possible. Even the time children spend playing in non-organised settings is often still under parental supervision," Visser explains. "The idea of being a bad parent when you send your children outside alone plays a big role. Playing indoors or in the backyard is seen by many parents as a safer option than playing outside. Yet children learn best by taking risks, perhaps falling, getting lost or overstepping their boundaries in the process. As a parent, it is difficult to find a balance in this.

Policy focuses on risk minimisation

"Minimising risk is often the focus of municipal policy as well. Playgrounds are built with a fence around it, playground equipment is not allowed to reach too much height, and the lowest branches of trees in playgrounds are cut down to avoid that children climb them," Visser explains. "Municipalities are often afraid of liability. Also resident participation, where residents have influence on how playgrounds should look like, does not contribute to creating risky playgrounds. Parents often base their assumptions on what their child is currently capable of and not what the challenges, and therefore development opportunities, are for the child.

Dare to take risks!

The term risk generally has a negative undertone. Visser reasons: "In our society, we want to manage and control risks more and more. The result is a risk-sterile environment, in which the positive outcomes of taking risks are not given a chance. As far as playing outside is concerned, for children up to 5 or 6 years of age it is certainly necessary to play under supervision. However, there comes a time when it is important to allow children to play independently and to take risks. Children learn best by falling or finding out that the tree was just a bit too high to climb.”

Power of risky play

But there is light on the horizon. Visser: "Fortunately, in more and more cities we are seeing (natural) playgrounds where children are challenged to be creative, to explore their limits and to play more adventurously. Such is the case with the Buurtlab/Ravottuh playgrounds in Rotterdam. I am currently doing research there together with three colleagues and master's students. We are mapping out how the layout of such a playground contributes to risky play. We are also investigating the experiences of parents, supervisors and children. For example, do children play differently if their parents often point out the risks or if they have to deal with certain prohibitions? With this research, we want to contribute to the development of playgrounds that are more fun and engaging for children. Because let's face it, a playground where everything is possible and everything is allowed sounds fantastic, doesn't it?