In Germany, there are playgrounds and then there are the abenteuerspielplätze (“adventure playgrounds”). Aimed at children aged seven to 13, these spaces are designed specifically to encourage children to experience the risk of wild, free play.

Adventure playgrounds come in many styles, but most feature opportunities for kids to build forts and tree houses, cook food on open fires and try out a variety of tools. Some even let children take care of farm animals. Kids can also simply play in a space meant specifically for them. At each site, adult staff or volunteers are usually present, but they are there to help with projects or to teach classes, not to supervise the children’s play.

Adventure playgrounds are not a German invention. They were first developed by the country’s northern neighbour, Denmark, but Germans eagerly adopted the concept in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, there are many such free-form play spaces throughout Germany. Berlin has one for nearly every neighbourhood district.

The adventure playground in our corner of the city was called “Forcki”, nicknamed after the larger park, Forckenbeckplatz, that was its home. Forcki is a bauspielplatz, a construction playground, where children are encouraged to build all kinds of things, including towering forts. The playground advertises its attractions for kids in a long list: “Adventure, excitement, action, good moods, bad moods . . . making fire, building, destroying, axes, hammers, nails, screwdrivers, large and small saws, cold, heat, wind, sun, moon, chatting, laughing, being sad, running, jumping, playing . . .” It goes on that way for several more lines, apparently offering the children a chance at playing in ways that are not always safe, not always happy, yet offer a lot of freedom and excitement.

Accidents do happen at adventure playgrounds, even bad ones. The German courts haven’t often sided with people seeking to sue for damages or to change the playgrounds to make them safer. In a 1978 case, which the play-advocacy group ABA Association calls “the adventure playground judgement”, a German federal court ruled against an injured person in part because the purpose of adventure playgrounds is to educate children about the “existence of risk” and teach them through daring how to manage “the dangers of daily life”. In other words, the dangers in these play spaces are real, on purpose and no-one is responsible for managing the risk but the child.

The German risk researcher Warwitz told me that such playgrounds “are a good way of self-testing for children”, providing places where they can try out skills and take risks, enhancing their knowledge of what they can do safely. Although Warwitz studies the benefits of risky play for children, he has a low opinion of amusement parks that feed children “pseudo-adventures” passively to induce the thrill of danger, with things like roller coasters, without any of the responsibility of taking a true risk. “Real adventures do not have to be spectacular,” he said. “They have to involve independent initiative, responsibility for oneself, the potential for failure and the willingness to accept any possible consequences.”

Everyone needs to learn to manage risk, Warwitz contends, and children should start learning as early as possible how to identify and handle dangers.

The importance of children engaging in risky play is an idea backed by research—and not just from Germany. In 2015, the University of British Columbia and the Child & Family Research Institute at BC Children’s Hospital in Canada published a systemic review of 21 papers on the subject. The review determined that risky outdoor play was not only healthy for children but encouraged the development of creativity, social skills and resilience. In particular, playgrounds that offered natural elements, changes in height and freedom for children to choose their own activities helped bring about these positive results.

Norwegian early childhood education professor Ellen Sandseter points to studies that indicate that children who engage in climbing have less fear of heights as adults, young children who engage in rough and tumble play are less aggressive when they are older, and children who experience multiple, positive separations from their parents before the age of nine have less separation anxiety symptoms at age 18.

She cautions that reducing or eliminating risky play could result in increased mental health problems. “Overprotection through governmental control of playgrounds and exaggerated fear of playground accidents might thus result in an increase of anxiety in society,” she writes. “We might need to provide more stimulating environments for children, rather than hamper their development.”

It is interesting to note that compared to America, where playground equipment has become extremely tame in the name of safety, the rate of injury in the European Union is a bit lower, even though many countries tend to have riskier playground equipment and parents don’t monitor their children as closely.

. . . children have a natural instinct for self-preservation and will usually only dare as much as they think they can manage.

There can be many reasons for a higher injury rate in the United States—children following their natural inclinations will often be more careful on playgrounds that feel more dangerous and, likewise, if a playground is too safe or boring, they will make something risky to make it more fun. They will go up a slide backward or throw themselves down the slide headfirst. They will climb on the outside of a structure not meant for climbing on or stand up on a swing.

This behaviour fits with the risk compensation theory, which argues that people adjust their behaviour according to the level of risk—taking more risk if they perceive that something is safer. So since all the safety equipment has been put in place, children may be more likely to misjudge the danger involved. For instance, they might think it’s safer to climb higher if the surface below them is designed to soften their fall.

Risk researchers argue that children have a natural instinct for self-preservation and will usually only dare as much as they think they can manage. Warwitz says that children’s “fear acts as a natural brake”. The really dangerous situations happen when something interferes with that normal instinct; for instance, when other people, such as older kids or adults, pressure children to try something they aren’t ready for.

So what can parents do with our ultrasafe playgrounds and culture of controlling children to encourage kids to take reasonable risks? It’s pretty simple. Do as the Germans do. Send your kids outside to play and don’t watch everything they do. Take them to the playground and leave them on their own for a while. Let them climb trees and ride bikes. Seek out playgrounds with creative and riskier structures. They are few and far between, but they can be found.

Most of all, we parents can help by turning off the “Achtung” in our heads. If we can break the habit of constantly telling our school-age kids to “Stop!” and “Be careful!” then they’ll have a better chance of testing their own limits and relying on their natural “fear brakes” to judge what they can and cannot do.

“Kids are supposed to do things that make their parents nervous,” my husband told me once. I remind myself of that almost every day.          

Extracted, with permission, from Achtung Baby by Sara Zaske ($32.99), published by Hachette Australia.

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