Safety versus Challenge

12/06/2011 5:05
One of the biggest issues in designing natural playspaces is that adults often seem to think that if you include items that don’t look like play equipment and softfall then children’s safety is at risk. Rocks and boulders tend to be the biggest concern and one which I am confronted with continually. To be honest, I haven’t heard of any major issues with rocks/boulders in child care and preschools whereas I have heard of heaps of accidents involving play equipment and softfall. So why do we have this fear of rocks? Is it because they aren’t widely used? Is it based on our past experiences with rocks? Is it because they are an unknown when it comes to how children react?

The key with boulders is to ensure they are less than 500mm, have rounded edges and are stable. Using boulders as part of a number of physical and climbing structures gives children an opportunity to master and test their balance and physical capabilities many times over without getting bored. In comparison play equipment once mastered in child care and preschool becomes boring and educators know what happens when children are bored – they think of ways to use the equipment that is inappropriate – this can cause accidents, behaviour issues, etc.

I remember talking to a director recently who had an excellent example about how children may play outdoors. The centre in the inner west of sydney had a full on climbing structure with a huge number of steps up to a tower, no railings, ladders on either side and ropes to swing on. They had this item for over 15 years with zero accidents. They were asked to remove the item as it was unsafe by DoCS and they replaced it with a lower metal play item and wetpour rubber softfall.

Within 2 weeks there were small accidents and then in the third week a child broke their arm. The director reflected that the staff thought the new item caused accidents because before children knew they had to be careful. They perceived the height of the high structure and what they had to do to get up there. When the smaller item was introduced, their lack of care diminished as the children seemed to perceive the new item as easy, which resulted in accidents.

So what is more beneficial to children – an outdoor environment that challenges children not just physically but mentally as well or one where there is no risk; no challenge and therefore no learning……
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