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Making Playgrounds a Little More Dangerous

“Oh my God, this is going to be amazing,” a preadolescent wearing a gray hoodie exclaimed as he dashed in to The Yard, a 50,000-square-foot adventure playground on Governors Island in New York Harbor.

The Yard, for kids 6 through 13, lacks the usual monkey bars, slides and swings. It is, however, well-stocked with dismembered store mannequins, wooden packing crates, tires, mattresses, an old piano and assorted other detritus of the modern world.

There were a few rules: no iPads or electronic devices, no flip flops and no adults. The painted wooden gate is low to discourage adults from inadvertently wandering in.

Despite a steady rain on Saturday, the opening day for the season, The Yard was a hive of activity. Joey Gunderson, 11, and his crew were attempting — not altogether successfully — to nail together wooden boards and plastic sheeting to construct a ramshackle “house.”

“Playgrounds have everything already built,” Joey explained, “but it’s funner to build whatever you want.”

Nearby, Matheo Torre Bliss, a lanky youth from Manhattan, and a confederate were smashing a keyboard with a hammer, removing the conical speaker and computer chips. Others were digging holes in the mud, scaling a 15-foot steel platform, sawing away at planks and hacking at a signboard with a crowbar.

ImageThere were a few rules: no iPads or electronic devices, no flip flops, and no adults.CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

“Sometimes parents hover by the fence and watch their kids like animals in a zoo,” said Rebecca Faulkner, the executive director of play:groundNYC, the nonprofit that runs The Yard, which opened in 2016. “I tell them, ‘You don’t need to worry, you don’t need to tell them what to do. Just sit back and relax.’”

Children are better at figuring out how to have fun than many adults who build playgrounds for them, Ms. Faulkner said. And they can also figure out how to play safely — even in a place that looks more like a junkyard than a playground.

“We’ve had our share of bruises and scrapes,” she said. “But we’ve never had a serious injury.”

Joey’s father, Christopher Gunderson, a sociology professor at Howard University, watched the action with other parents from a lawn chair outside the playground. “Kids grow up in these really controlled environments,” he said. “This is a place where they can run wild.”

“Play nowadays is totally structured,” Joey’s grandfather, Fred Klonsky, a retired elementary school teacher, chimed in. “They play organized sports supervised by adults, even their disputes are settled by adults. Kids used to work all that stuff out themselves.”

The Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen was bothered by the same trends over 70 years ago. He noticed that children in Copenhagen during World War II preferred to play in abandoned lots and construction sites than on the well-appointed asphalt playgrounds that had been built for them.

ImageTools and junk take the place of swings and slides.CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

Mr. Sorensen developed what he called “junk playgrounds” to help foster children’s independence and creativity.

The idea spread to England, where some play spaces were opened in the rubble of bombed-out buildings at the end of the war and renamed “adventure playgrounds” to be more attractive to adults. Today there are roughly 1,000 worldwide.

Children are watched by specially trained adult play workers, who teach them how to use the tools that are provided them, but otherwise intervene only when there is danger to the children, for example when a war between rival “forts” turns ugly, or rusty nails or sharp-edged objects pose a threat.

There are a handful of adventure playgrounds in the United States, but the idea has not yet gained traction here.

“Many agencies fear being sued if a child gets hurt,” said Teri Hendy, the president of an Ohio-based playground consultancy, Site Masters. Ms. Hendy blamed outdated federal rules on playground design developed decades ago by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. She favors more flexible guidelines, arguing that playgrounds don’t have to be boring to be safe.

ImageThe Danish landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorensen developed what he called “junk playgrounds” to help foster children’s independence and creativity.CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

Some research backs this up. Meghan Talarowski, the founder of a playground research and design organization, Studio Ludo, in Philadelphia, conducted a study that compared playgrounds in London and in American cities.

The British playgrounds typically had less fixed play equipment than their American counterparts, and more seemingly hazardous design elements, like climbing structures and tree houses.

Ms. Talarowski found that children were more physically active and remained in the British playgrounds longer than in American ones. And surprisingly, given the potential for risky play, there were fewer injuries in the London playgrounds than in those in the United States.

“The best playgrounds look dangerous but are completely safe,” Ms. Talarowski said.

Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter, a Norwegian early-childhood researcher, said that children seek out rough and tumble play, climbing to heights and moving their bodies at high speed — activities that are a critical way that children learn about risks and cope with fears.

When we prevent them from doing these things, they get bored, and are tempted to perform rash stunts like turning somersaults on top of climbing frames and standing on the shoulders of others on the swings, Dr. Sandseter said.

ImageChildren are better at figuring out how to have fun than the adults who build playgrounds for them, says Rebecca Faulkner, the executive director of play:groundNYC, the nonprofit that runs The Yard.CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

This daredevil behavior born of frustration is a main cause of playground accidents, said Mariana Brussoni, a scientist with the Child & Family Research Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“I came to the counterintuitive conclusion that engaging in risk is actually very important in preventing injuries,” said Dr. Brussoni, who conducted a systematic review of the scientific literature on playground safety in 2015. “Children are learning how their bodies work, how the world works,” she said. “They are learning fundamental skills that ultimately protect them.”

And there appear to be social gains as well.

A 2017 randomized controlled trial conducted in New Zealand found that children (ages 6 through 9) who participated in what the researchers called “free range play” were happier at school, more engaged with other children and less likely to report being bullied during recess than those whose play time was more structured.

Still, many parents remain wary.

“People perceive that the world is getting more dangerous. Parental fears are on the rise,” Dr. Brussoni said. She speculated that it was fueled by media attention to child kidnappings and other crimes. Yet “the data shows that it has never been a safer time to be a child,” she said — a contention backed up by a 2016 report by the Department of Justice.

Image“The data shows that it has never been a safer time to be a child.”CreditChristopher Lee for The New York Times

To address these fears, Dr. Brussoni developed a website called Outside Play, where users can download an online tool that guides parents to feel more confident about allowing their children to engage in nondirected outdoor play.

It may be an uphill battle. There is a widespread belief that time spent on electronic devices is the major reason that children are spending more time indoors. But outdoor play has been declining for decades.

“I don’t buy the argument that the screens are keeping the kids from the playgrounds,” said Susan Solomon, an architectural historian and the author of “American Playgrounds.” “If the playgrounds were better, kids would be there. Better playgrounds would definitely give screens a run for their money.”

The need for better playgrounds was the subject of a report published in late April by Scott Stringer, the New York City comptroller. The report characterized large swaths of the city as “playground deserts” and called for the creation of 200 new playgrounds in underserved neighborhoods in the next five years.

“The Yard is an oasis in the desert,” Ms. Faulkner said. “We’ll be lobbying that some of those new playgrounds should be adventure playgrounds, which are cheap to build and safe to play in.”

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