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Obsession with safety is ruining our playgrounds

Regulations that aim to make play areas as risk-free as possible are robbing children of not only fun but also the chance to master progressive physical challenges to develop confidence.

January 20, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times

Last fall, a state inspector strode into Great Beginnings preschool and declared the tree house and climbing structure too high. They would have to come down or be surrounded by extra padding.

The metal ladder to the playhouse, which had been there 30 years, could pinch the children, said Beverly Wright-Chrystal, a state child care licensing representative. Also, a log worn smooth by generations of boys and girls playing horsy and hide-and-go-seek would have to be sanded and painted because of a potential "splinter hazard," Wright-Chrystal determined.

Marian Stocking, who opened the Long Beach preschool in a converted house on 4th Street in 1978, had the offending equipment hauled away. Watching it go, some of the children cried out, "Tell those bad men to bring our log back."

This lame-brain act of over-regulation is part of a dumbing down of playgrounds that has been going on for decades. Twenty years ago, when my son turned 3, they took a soaring swing away from the neighborhood recreation center. I drove from suburb to suburb, seeking out equipment with more kick than the mounds of safety-first molded plastic he'd outgrown in our L.A. neighborhood.

A couple of years later, my daughter's preschool was ordered to rip out its monkey bars. I took them home and put them outside my kitchen window. They became her gym, secret clubhouse and pretend castle. I watched her and her friends fill with pride as they progressed from swinging hand-over-hand across the bars to hanging by their knees and then finally walking across the top.

Risky? Perhaps, but I saw a greater risk in having children bored to tears or flat-lining on video games or TV. And the research bears me out.

Even if the new playgrounds are safer — and that is disputed — children need to master progressive physical challenges to develop the confidence and judgment necessary for everyday life, playground experts say. Otherwise they grow up anxious and fearful. Playground thrills also make children smarter.

"If you create sanitized play areas, children are bored and their brains go to sleep," said lawyer Philip K. Howard, author of "The Death of Common Sense,' who has written about ridiculous playground regulations.

Kids generally resist flinging themselves over the side of a two-story tower. They take calculated risks. I recall the first time I ventured onto the park merry-go-round, clinging to the center while the big kids spun us around. As I got older, I slowly moved to the edge, finally dropping my head back over the side to watch the sky spin crazily above my head.

It was a rush. But now merry-go-rounds, seesaws and tall slides are disappearing. Wright-Chrystal told Stocking that instead of replacing the climbing structure she could introduce other activities, like balls or hopscotch.

Hopscotch! Whoopee!!

But wait — someone might trip over their marker!

A state Department of Social Services spokesman declined to make Wright-Chrystal available to discuss Great Beginnings. But he said the preschool could have appealed the decisions or fixed the problems instead of ripping the equipment out.

The spokesman, Michael Weston, also said the enforcement action was not spurred by parent complaints, accident reports (Stocking said she has none) or new regulations.

"Most of the code has been on the books since the beginning," he said. But apparently not enforced, because her equipment had been there for decades, Stocking said.

Great Beginnings is the kind of old-fashioned preschool where children are encouraged to get outside and get dirty. There are no computers, but there's a chicken, a tortoise and a garden with milkweed plants covered with caterpillars that will turn into Monarch butterflies.

Some of the current parents attended the school as children. The loss of the playground was sadder for them than for the children, said Molly Montgomery, 41, a Realtor who has sent her two kids to the school.

"One of the things I like about this school is the continuity," said Montgomery, adding that she transferred her son from another preschool where the teachers interfered with his art work.

"I trust them completely," she said. "If anything did happen, it would be because they're kids and things happen."

Where then did the excessive caution arise? There is no data showing an increase in playground injuries or lawsuits, Howard said.

But in the United States of Litigation, fear is enough. When Stocking told her that parents were angry about the playground being dismantled, Wright-Chrystal said they were the very people who would sue if something happened to their children.

"That's insulting to me and to my parents to think we have that kind of relationship," Stocking said, her eyes filling with tears.

Older preschools don't have room for the extensive safety zones now required around jungle gyms and climbing arches. Our public parks have no excuse.

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