Playground safety expert Associate Professor David Eager says children learn by being exposed to controlled risk

Tait Schmaal

AFTER years of children being wrapped in cotton wool, danger is returning to Australian playgrounds.

Merry-go-rounds and flying foxes are back. Wobbly space nets are reaching dizzying heights. There are cubbies in trees and giant slides.

Rope burns? Cuts and bruises? Broken bones? All healthy lessons, says the country’s highest authority on playground safety, Associate Professor David Eager.

It’s not that playgrounds are dangerous or that he wants to see children get hurt.

Rather, he believes that calculating risk is an essential lesson of childhood and that exposing kids to controlled risks — such as a fall that might, at very worst, fracture a bone — will keep them safer in the long run.

“Children need to be given opportunities to engage in activities where they will be able to learn from their mistakes,” says Dr Eager, associate professor of Engineering at the University of Technology, in Sydney. “It’s OK if your children have an accident.

“Children who are exposed to too little challenge often take on inappropriate risks, where the chance of injury is high, because they lack the ability to judge the level of risk and the strategies and skills to tackle it effectively.”

Under his watch, moving equipment is being reintroduced. There are now safety standards on flying foxes and carousels.

“We have increased the fall height on some play equipment to 3m, so you can give that perception of risk,” he said. “It might not sound like much, but in terms of design of the playground, it gives landscape architects much more room to come up with exciting things. Kids will fall — they fall all the time. And 3m sounds like a long way for a child to fall. But there’s compelling evidence that this increased risk of falling will not translate to increased injuries.”

Justine Perkins, who runs the Livvi’s Place playground empire, agrees.

There are 15 Livvi’s Place playgrounds around Australia — set up in memory of Mrs Perkins’ late daughter, Olivia — which cater for children with disabilities.

Some of these playgrounds have motorised carousels (loved by kids in wheelchairs), “space” climbing nets (popular among kids with autism), and flying foxes with harnesses for toddlers or kids with mobility issues.

“There are risks associated with all of these, but that’s how children learn to navigate the world safely,” Ms Perkins says.

“In the past 15 years, we seem to have gone backwards in ensuring children build independence. Accidents happen. Kids fall down stairs and will break an arm.

“I’m noticing that some councils are willing to take more risks. I am not suggesting that monkey bars come back, but there’s a need for climbing equipment to teach kids where they can jump from and where they can’t.”

City of Sydney Council’s principal design manager Adam Fowler said the main reason councils were being more adventurous was research showing that challenge and risk are important for children. Urban density was also increasing the importance of well thought-out playgrounds. “We partner with people who actually understand children’s play behaviours and development through play,” he says. “We also consult kids.”

Adding risk to a playground, however, does not mean making it hazardous. Dr Eager’s job, as chairman of Standards Australia’s Children’s Playground Equipment Committee, is to protect children from death and permanent injury, and to remove the subtle hazards even adults can’t spot. He brings an engineer’s eye to playground safety.

He is an authority on impact-reducing surfaces, which are designed to take the impact of that 3m fall. He believes bark is the safest surface.

Sand can be good, too, but it needs to be a special kind that originated as a volcanic outcrop and has been weathered by water into little spheres (sand that’s good to play with is the worst for absorbing impact).

There’s also a fear that sand can spread disease; in recent years there have been cases in Australia in which sandy playgrounds have been closed after children contracted salmonella poisoning because of animal faeces.

Dr Eager is not a fan of the rubber “safety surface”, other than in playgrounds that cater to children in wheelchairs. It’s expensive, hot, and can have different levels of effectiveness depending on how old it is, or how well it was laid.

The surface also fails to draw energy away from a fall, as bark and sand do. “Rubber gives bounce, which snaps the bones,” Dr Eager says.

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