The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions
Since I’ve been involved with designing and marketing play apparatus, fall surfacing, climbing walls, and skateparks, the issue of protecting kids from falls and the use of helmets has figured prominently throughout my five decades in this field. My experience leads me to the opinion that helmets, and other protective gear should be worn when the player has the intention of testing the limits of their skill or when the environment is unpredictable. For example, helmets when dirt biking or on busy streets are a good idea but may not necessary when playing in the neighborhood.
What makes us safe is not protective devices but judgment, honed reflexes, and fundamental movement skills. The goal is to reduce the frequency and severity of injury. If you watch a toddler learning to walk, they have several innate behaviors that help achieve this end. When they are about to fall forward, their reaction is to resume their crawling gait and extend their arms in what is called “protective arm reflex.” When the fall is backwards, they drop to their bottoms. In both cases, these instinctual reactions do the job of head protection very well.
The question arises then, what is the impact of using a safety helmet? In talking with child development physiologists, they suggest several issues. First, they suspect, although there is little research on this, that such protective gear may disrupt the normal progression of reflex maturation. They also are concerned that the lack of consequences when falling may retard the child’s ability to form proper assessments of their skill, i.e. reduce their judgment. Finally, they speculate that it reinforces a pattern of parenting that is over protective and ultimately harmful.
From this example, we can see that what might appear as a good idea is fraught with complexity and perhaps unintended consequences.
Turning to playground safety, this will probably be news to you, but the ASTM [international standards organization] Playground Surfacing Committee is proposing to significantly increase the resilience requirements for playgrounds. The motivation appears to be that the goal of improving playground safety with the current standard has not significantly reduced the number of hospital visits.
To my mind, this is not unlike the logic of the medieval doctor who, when their patient did not get well with one bloodletting, concluded that they needed more bloodletting.
There are many possible reasons for the accident rates to remain unchanged that have nothing to do with the resiliency of the landing surface. One possibility is that the recent trend to cover the entire playground with rubber is so expensive that the amount of play equipment has to be reduced significantly. This results in a lack of events, which in turn reduces the opportunities for graduated challenge that allow kids to gain skills incrementally. On the one hand, little kids must use equipment that is beyond their skill level and, on the other hand, older kids find little to challenge them and so use the equipment in inappropriate ways.
“Child development physiologists . . . suspect, although there is little research on this, that such protective gear may disrupt the normal progression of reflex maturation. They also are concerned that the lack of consequences when falling may retard the child’s ability to form proper assessments of their skill, i.e. reduce their judgment. Finally, they speculate that it reinforces a pattern of parenting that is over protective and ultimately harmful.”
Another possible reason is that playgrounds have become so sanitized of challenge that most kids play elsewhere and the few kids who do come are far less skilled. We may be designing playgrounds for “motor-morons” who have poor reflexes and judgment.
There are also methodical and significant questions about how the data on accidents is collected that make the notion of imposing yet another expensive round of surfacing upgrades based on these “facts” highly suspect.
The point is that we just don’t know the answer.
But we do know the ASTM process, and it is deeply flawed. As you may recall, the initial data for the standard was drawn from research on automobile accidents. This makes a certain amount of sense because in the car crash scenario most of the variables are known and controllable. On the playground, this is just not possible. Without a complete understanding of the human factors, we cannot be confident that any proposed solution will be effective.
I am reminded that the first time I saw an installation of six inches of loose rubber chips I was astounded to see kids literally throwing themselves off the play structure as if they were jumping into a pool. We do know that kids will often play up to the point of pain. When you pad the pain, they just push harder.
It is quite clear that the whole process used in the creation of the surfacing standard is not based on robust science. For example there has never been a formal A/B test where the same equipment and populations used different levels of fall attenuating surfacing. I can say that my experience in those cases where wood fiber was replaced rubber mats the incident of broken arms went from zero to several times a month. This got to be such a known risk factor that in many cases the wood fiber was reinstalled over the mats.
The industry is quite candid in their acceptance of this situation. They know that mats produce more long bone injuries than wood fiber. The notion is that the benefits of mats outweigh that exposure because kids get broken arms all the time and the main concern is head injuries. Well, tell that to the young lady who had a break on her femur grow plate and now has one leg two inches shorter than the other. Ask her how it feels to never be able to wear nice shoes, not to the prom, not to her wedding. The industry’s lack of concern for these sorts of injuries suggests that safety may not be their first priority.
Finally, how can we expect a system, in which every person in the decision-making process has a profound conflict of interest, to arrive at the overall best solution for society? How can we expect a process that is populated exclusively by engineers and business owners, and which systematically excludes broader representation, to understand that not very problem can be solved by the only tool they have.
I say it’s time we take a pause. It is time we demand that there be a broader range of experience, expertise, and opinion brought to bear on the issue. And it is time that we require actual proof that the proposed increase in the standard will actually produce the intended improvements to children’s safety.
Jay Beckwith is the curator for the PBS show NOW Playing!. For nearly five decades, he has dedicated himself to promoting play. Trained as an artist, his earliest works were play sculptures and he is the first living artist to have a one-man exhibition at the San Francisco DeYoung Museum of Art – Build Your Own Playground. Jay also has a background in early childhood development and is one of the main creators of the modern playground. His designs have been the core of the Gymboree Play and Music program. He has written several books, many articles, and is a featured columnist for Playground Professions magazine. This article was first published in PlaygroundProfessionals.com, 2-10-15. Jay also shares his thoughts about play on his blog.