Tyre pits, log swings and mud pits are rarely seen in children’s playgrounds nowadays.
You’re more likely to find finely molded plastic slides with rounded edges, where the chance of injury (and litigation) is almost zero.
But, after decades spent trying to minimize risk, schools and councils are beginning to let children dabble with danger, under adult supervision of course.
In Shoeburyness, Essex, Richmond Avenue Primary and Nursery School has constructed a playground filled with what might be considered dangerous toys.
Crates, loose bricks, work benches, hammers and saws are all present in the space, which was introduced by the school’s board four years ago.
‘We have fires, we use knives, saws, different tools,’ says Leah Morris, who manages the youngest pupils.Soft-edged, risk-free playgrounds create rule followers, says Debbie Hughes, the school’s head teacher. But rule followers are unlikely to be rewarded in the future.
Experts increasing say parents should expose their children to limited risk in an attempt to boost resilience and grit.
Children in more risky environments report being happier at school and playing with more children.
Researchers from the University of Otago, New Zealand, asked eight schools to increase the element of ‘risk’ in their playground.
Those schools increased the number of physically activities available, relaxed their rules and increased the number of tires and bricks found in their outdoor spaces.
After a year, 840 children, 635 parents and 90 teachers completed bullying questionnaires.
Children in the higher-risk environment reported being happier at school as well as playing with more children.
Similarly, American landscape designer Meghan Talarowski compared British and US playgrounds and found the UK’s riskier spaces had 55 per cent more visitors, while children who visited were 16 to 18 per cent more active.
However, both countries have seen a gradual sterilization of play.
And this move towards a risk-free society has been reflected in our playgrounds.
Plank swings and steel merry-go-rounds are absent while play spaces are covered with an impact absorbent rubber surface.
This drives down the chance of a child being hurt while driving up the cost of new playgrounds.
But that trend has slowly begun to reverse and a push towards riskier, freer spaces is earning support from a growing list of ministers, including Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of Ofsted.
The current measures that protect our children – like forcing them to wear high-visibility jackets on school trips – are ‘simply barmy’, she says.
‘It’s OK to have some risk of children falling over and bashing into things,’ she says.
‘That’s not the same as being reckless and sending a 2-year-old to walk on the edge of a 200-foot cliff unaccompanied.’
In London, a plaque outside the Princess Diana Playground in Kensington Gardens in London, which attracts more than a million visitors a year, tells parents risk have been ‘intentionally provided, so that your child can develop an appreciation of risk in a controlled play environment rather than taking similar risks in an uncontrolled and unregulated wider world.’
‘It’s about exploring controlled risk, risk that we’ve carefully designed,’ says Chris Moran, who manages of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park across the city.
The site’s Tumbling Bay playground was built in 2014 costing more than £1.3million.
‘We’ve got the gorse bushes, which are quite spiky,’ he said.
‘The child will touch it and learn it is a spiky bush.’
Replete with 2-foot climbing towers made from the boughs of grizzled tree lashed together by hand, the park claims to give kids and chance to roam free in the centre of busy East London.
That’s not to say it’s a free for all. The park requires an intensive safety inspection regime.
In November half the space was sealed off so that rotten boughs could be replaced.
But so far, there have been very few injuries, none of which have been serious.