The Road to Hell is paved with good intentions

Thudguard sm

This post first appeared at Playground Professions 2-10-15

I recently posted this image of the ThudGuard helmet on the Linkedin Playground Safety: Balancing Play Value & Injury Prevention group and asked what the members thought about it. After the predictable bout of mocking the discussion became quite interesting. There was one mother who thought it was a good idea but the majority felt is was another indication of over-protective parenting. Mind you, this is primarily a group of playground safety advocates, so their take was somewhat surprising.

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 resumes 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 to 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 it will probably be news to you, but the ASTM 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 blood letting concluded that they needed more blood letting.

No Fault

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.

Edge to edge rubber is becoming the norm.

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 6-in 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 which 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 its 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.

Using Super Powers to Design a Playspace

This post first appeared Sept 18, 2014 in Playground Professionals

Periodic Play 8.5x14

As we discussed in our last blog, Laura Richardson’s insightful The Periodic Table of 21st Century Play poster can be a powerful tool in the hands of designers and communities when they seek to create truly human and engaging places that support play. As an illustration of how this can work I will use Laura’s 11 categories, which she refers to as the super powers of play, and create a virtual playground.

1.   See

[See>see ourselves see>observe>visualize>imagine]

The “see” element in our virtual playground will be a “fun” mirror. These can be done in stainless steel for durability. To make them playful we will use a thin sheet and back it up with flexible plastic. There will be a moveable “bulge” placed behind the sheet so the children can make a wavy surface and create a distorted reflection.

FunMirrorPanel_360 LSI

(LSI image)

2.   Manipulate


This is the easiest element to add to our virtual playground.  All we need is a set of Imagination Playground Blocks. Because we want our virtual playground to be used just like a regular playground we will add a steel storage container to house them when not in use.  The lock will be like the credit card style passkeys that are used in hotels and parents will be able to get a key from the local recreation department. As these are electronically coded so the staff will know who is accessing the storage container and can allow our reject that access.


Here is a wonderful example of the Play Box concept from

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 11.51.44 AM

French Play Box

3.   Move

[Move> think with Hands>with Body>with Senses]

Sure most playground provide for movement but our virtual playground is going to leave those static structures in the dust because our venue for movement is an adventure course that not only has all the traditional obstacles but also has new challenges. For example there will be obstacles that require that you access them by inserting a key into a lock that is hidden from view. Another event will have a button hidden behind a large sheet of flexible plastic and pressing the button shape will give the player access. There are other shapes hidden there as well and pressing those will lock the passage.  To make this “lockable gate” even more fun players can randomize the locations of the shapes so there is no consistently right solution.

Adventure course

4.   Act

[Act>Role Play>Storytelling>Improv] 

Many playgrounds have themes and plastic attachments that adults think support imaginative play. In my experience these are very rarely compelling and few children actually take on the roles suggested by these themes. Putting some sort of theme on the outside does little to enhance pretend play.  There are some exceptions, for example, the Danish firm Monstrum creates amazing environments. What really makes dramatic play an ever-present element is the availability of lots of associated props. Some of these can be attached, i.e. a steering wheel is a very successful pretend play attachment. But since our playspace already has un-lockable storage we’ll just load it up with lots of play props.


5.   Sense External

[Sense External>Empathy>Collaborate>Influence]

It has been said that a parent has no higher responsibility than to help their children become empathic. It might seem like a stretch to expect a playspace help children become more in touch with the feelings of others, but it really isn’t. Remember we do have storage for our props. All we need to do is add some “medical” props, bandages, crutches and even a wheelchair and the kids will play doctor and in doing so will try to help each other “get better.” Of course this is “just” play so to make this activity more real we’ll add in a bunch of kids who actually need these devices and services. When we mix kids of all abilities we start getting deep collaboration and hopefully influence.


6.   Sense Internal

[Sense Internal>Intrinsic Motivation>Rule Making>Courage and Confidence>Perseverance]

Many of the elements we have already added to our virtual playspace bring out the qualities of “sense internal” but we can add one more that will really lift the lid … FIRE! This may seem like an outrageous idea but its been done successfully many times.  Most recently example comes from The Land Adventure Playground who make this a routine part of their playspace. And if you think about it we’ve always had BBQ grills adjacent to play areas without problems, so a fire pit is not really such a leap.

The Land

7.   Morph

[Morph>Change Tolerance>Flexible Thinking>Illusion>Ambiguity>Transformation

Adding the notion of “morphing” the playspace make the design really interesting. We will deliver this element in the simplest way possible. Periodically and unpredictably we will come into the playspace and change it up, move things around, add and subtract.  Some things may look the same but behave or respond differently; the fire pit becomes a fish bowl, the bouncy net becomes rigid, etc.

8.   Quest

[Quest>Curiosity>Problem Finding/Forming>Search/Discover>Take Risks>Meaningful Failure]

To incorporate the Quest element we will very occasionally put up a sign that says “The playspace will be closed for 3 days for a Quest” and the quest in this example can be any kind of test that will require that the children come together and work out a way to meet the challenge.

9.   Stretch

[Stretch>Analogy>Abstraction>Systematic Thinking>Long Term Thinking>Dimensional Thinking]

One of the challenges to the children can be “Create a 3-D map of the playspace that has the highest view at the top and the smallest view at the bottom. Show how the view will change over one year.” The children will be supplied with craft materials, a digital camera with close-up and wide-angle lenses and also a mini RC helicopter on which it can be mounted so they can assemble images as well as create a3-D map.


10.        Combine

[Combine>Critique and Critical Reflection>Evaluate and Decision Making>Pattern Finding/Forming>Simplifying Complexity>Synthesis]

As the process of issuing challenges to the children becomes an expected source of fun we can introduce even more demanding tasks. To explore this element we will ask the children to teach a group of much younger children what they have learned in the playspace, show them the tricks of the trade, so to speak. As those of us who have taught know too well, all of the aspects of the Combine element are required to teach what you know.

11.        Create

[Create>Ideation and Brainstorm>Make and Model>Design and Invent]

As a final challenge the children will be asked to create a new playspace, either at this site or another. They may duplicate only 50% of the existing features and must create an equal number of new features.


The first thing to notice is that, as we have proceeded to use Laura’s chart and populate it with elements in a playspace, we moved from innovative hardware, to programs, and finally to external action. While part of this progression was my intention, it also was strongly influenced by the order in which Laura has setup the chart. The chart is not a smooth lineal progression and the successive columns build on each other.  In that sense the chart along the horizontal somewhat based developing skills in the players.

Could this virtual playspace become a reality? Most definitely, as all of these ideas already exist in one form or another. In my imagination it would be something like an adventure playground without the junk. It would be something like a ropes course only not so high and without instructors.  And it would be something like a good summer camp but with adults far in the background.

This was a most interesting exercise. I hope you try your hand at creating your own virtual playspace.

Better yet, go out and make a real one using the Super Powers of play.

What I did on my Summer Vacation

If you were a poor kid living in the city and couldn’t go off of your block, what fun could you have?

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

_              Climbed a tree

_              Dug a giant hole

_              Decorated my bike

_              Made a new friend

_              Played “pitch penny”

_              Learned to skateboard

_              Played with my bother or sister _______ times

_              Played “hide and go seek”

_              Read a comic book

_              Drew a picture

_              Made a hide-out from cardboard boxes

_              Played dress-up

_              Flew a kite

_              Made a boat

_              Ran under the lawn sprinkler

_              Played tag

_              Turned off the TV and went outside _______ times