Revenge Effects of Too-Safe Playground Equipment

Sometimes too much security isn’t good.

After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.

“Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”


By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

“Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,” they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this “anti-phobic effect” helps explain the evolution of children’s fondness for thrill-seeking. While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive—why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce?—the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.

Posted on July 25, 2011 at 1:06 PM45 Comments


alecmuffett July 25, 2011 1:26 PM

why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce?

Because those who are more wholly fearful or reticent will not take risks to bring home the antelope?

Competing pressures, it’s kinda the way natural selection works…

Petréa Mitchell July 25, 2011 1:36 PM

I would love to believe that the life experiences I had as a child were provably superior to today’s ignorant youths, but… um… I’d like to see some data.

HJohn July 25, 2011 1:44 PM

I also think overprotecting children leads them to be less cautious in situations where there is real danger.

Allow some bruises in a low risk environment may prevent future breaks, for example.

Also its like banning peanut butter instead of teaching kids to be careful. They assume everything is safe and get hurt when in another environment.

anon July 25, 2011 2:20 PM

Obligatory link to The Onion,1088/

Earth To Be Made Child-Safe
September 18, 1996

NEW YORK—Under heavy pressure from safety-conscious parents groups around the world, the U.N. General Assembly approved a plan yesterday to make the earth child-safe by the year 2000.

Renamed the Sportin’ Kids Family Fun Play Globe, the planet will be biologically and topographically overhauled to provide youngsters worldwide with a safe, unimposing, family-oriented environment full of colorful, round-edged objects and plush items.

. . .

magetoo July 25, 2011 2:55 PM

Petréa Mitchell:

but… um… I’d like to see some data.

The last link is a PDF at least. But the first paper seems trickier to find, so I guess it comes down to whether a local library has access.

(Seriously, $34 just to read one paper? Does anyone ever do that?)

Not really anonymous July 25, 2011 3:51 PM

The old jungle gyms which were a lattice of metal bars with the whole thing mounted on top of asphalt were unnecessarily dangerous. Climbing trees was safer.

Nobody July 25, 2011 4:05 PM

@ Gary H.
“What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.”

Playing tiddly-winks or marbles isn’t going to make you stronger.

Getting maimed isn’t going to kill you, but doesn’t make you stronger.

And getting stronger doesn’t do much good if you’re still just as stupid as before.

Gabriel July 25, 2011 4:06 PM

Interestingly, the unwitting drug mule thread diverged into something about the Norway attack, and one of the responses from Clive is actually quite relevant to this topic. That in his generation, kids were taught to use knives, shoot, hunt game, etc. His point was that kids back then were better prepared for survival than they are today, since even boy scouts can’t use pen knives.

bob July 25, 2011 4:38 PM

@Gabriel: I know exactly what you mean. As the slick little shit at the desk across from me breezes in late wearing yesterday’s clothes and somebody’s lipstick, I tell myself that as soon as we’re both in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, he’s going to regret wasting his youth enjoying himself. Although, he smokes and I never got the hang of that two sticks business… 🙁

Petréa Mitchell July 25, 2011 4:49 PM


The first paper just provides some categorization, anyway. None of the links lead to a study actually testing whether “dangerous” playgound equipment leads to fewer phobias or more self-confidence in later life.

Dr. T July 25, 2011 5:42 PM

“…youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive — why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce?”

The total klutzes would be removed from the gene pool, leaving those with better coordination, balance, and strength to reproduce. Also, the kids smart enough to not climb beyond their skills live to reproduce. Those seem like good Darwinian selection processes.

kingsnake July 25, 2011 5:50 PM

Or the klutzes learn that injuries can be toughed out (speaking from ample klutzery as a kid), whereas the non-klutzes never learn how to deal with physical adversity, so that when the fickle finger of fate is, as it will be at some point, upon them, they collapse in panic because they don’t know how to deal with it.

Miso Susanowa July 25, 2011 6:38 PM

@GaryH: do you know the origin of that saying? Ghengis Khan (not kidding).

It’s not exactly the nicest “motivational saying” in the book. It’s bottom-line Darwinian.

Dirk Praet July 25, 2011 8:06 PM

@ Gabriel

Same observation here. And I entirely concur with Clive. My cousin, who is a police officer, not too long ago made a similar statement by blaming many of the assaults, muggings and burglaries he has to deal with on the utter inability of the victims to properly secure and defend themselves, their loved ones and their property. In affluent countries as ours, many skills once required for survival seem to have been deprecated over the years as the socio-economic fabric of a peaceful and civilised society no longer made them necessary. Despite the many advantages of moving beyond a purely Darwinian society, there are also certain drawbacks when that same fabric starts decaying in times of economic recession, a massive influx of disenfranchised people from other regions with an entirely different mindset, drastic infrastructure breakdowns or other high-impact changes to the status quo everyone has gotten used to.

Failure to cultivate a number of basic skills on grounds of them being obsolete by a given societal or technological context is never a good thing as progress in my opinion is non-linear and civilisation only skin-deep.

Don July 25, 2011 9:08 PM

I think Petréa makes a sensible point –

The most substantial point of interest in the article and in the comments above is that overly save playground equipment is in some sense or other bad for children. At this point this seems to be purely a conjecture, and there are no experiments or data to support this conjecture.

tommy July 25, 2011 9:24 PM

There’s a good analogy to the development of the body’s immune system. Children need some exposure to germs, etc. so that their immune systems learn to respond to minor threats, and are thus prepared to deal with major ones.

There are reports that bringing up children in too clean of an environment results in a weaker immune system. I’m not a physician and can’t quote sources offhand, but for somewhat-reality-based fiction, Episode #8 of Season 6 of “House, M. D.” featured a male pawrn star who in the end was suffering from having been brought up by overprotective parents in a too-sanitary environment. It mentions the “hygiene hypothesis” — why there is so much autoimmune disease in the developed world, and almost none in the Third World, where circumstances train the newborn’s immune system rapidly — or Darwinianly.

Synopsis, with spoiler (I just gave it away anyway):

My tribute to the show in my sig-link.

Richard Steven Hack July 25, 2011 10:02 PM

I prefer the Joker’s adaptation: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.”

Certainly applies in my case… 🙂

Nobody: Apparently the context of the saying eludes you.

Miso: “Darwinian” in most cases means “reality”.

This article is probably correct but also probably far too general which appears to be a significant issue with a lot of “evolutionary pyschology” which is mostly speculation – even compared to the usual psychological sciences which are mostly speculation and random conglomerations of “symptoms”.

That said, I re-iterate that the study of martial arts by children, especially including the philosophical and meditative aspects, is probably the best way to improve how children are raised in this world. A properly trained martial artist tends to be better at dealing with life’s problems, especially ones dealing with physical threat. Not to mention the physical and nervous system benefits which are probably far superior to those of conventional sports which dominate the educational scene.

The best martial art to study in the respect of overall survival would be Togakure-ryu ninjutsu, since that is a total lifestyle art devoted precisely to survival and the elimination of weakness and vulnerability. It is an intensely pragmatic art but with a deep philosophical/spiritual background to it. It is in no sense a “sport” or even a limited “martial art” similar to derivative arts such as judo.

al July 25, 2011 11:37 PM

R S Hack

“I prefer the Joker’s adaptation: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.”

Certainly applies in my case… :-)”

so can we see a link between the postings here and the Vietnam era experiences?

tommy July 25, 2011 11:47 PM

@ Miso Susanowa:

Wikiquotes attributes that to Friedrich Nietzsche, which is where I’d always heard it, and does not list it among Khan’s quotes.

“Twilight of the Idols” (1888)

“Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.”

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”

In any case, who said it does not affect whether it’s valid. This is the “argumentum ad hominem” fallacy, which I think I’ll make a template for copy/paste, as it occurs so often, not only in almost all public debate in general, but here, where people are supposed to deal in logic.

The truth or falsity of the statement, “The Earth is flat”, is not altered by having been uttered by Jesus of Nazareth or Josef Stalin. Statements stand on their own merits.

@ Richard Steven Hack:

Nope, “Nobody” has no clue at all. All tools are dangerous in the hands of fools, including words.

@ Nobody: Differences of opinion are well-tolerated here, but please have an informed opinion. If you’ve never heard the aphorism and/or don’t understand it, please read up on it before making irrelevant comparisons. Thank you, and welcome to the blog.

@ Richard Steven Hack:

“if nothing else, martial arts teaches you to fall down properly”

One of the most crucial parts (IMHO) of my time as a snow-skiing instructor was teaching students to fall down properly. We attended a seminar based on research conducted by the U of Vermont, and passed on that knowledge, greatly reducing injuries from the sport, especially the all-too-common ACL and/or MCL tears.

Moderator July 26, 2011 12:04 AM


“If you’ve never heard the aphorism and/or don’t understand it, please read up on it before making irrelevant comparisons. ”

Similarly, if you don’t know much about the hygiene hypothesis, you could read up on that and cite a real source. The House episode summary really doesn’t belong here.

More importantly, I specifically asked you not to mention your song parodies in comments again.

Richard Steven Hack July 26, 2011 2:17 AM

Al: “so can we see a link between the postings here and the Vietnam era experiences?”

Actually a long history of bad experiences, beginning in kindergarten (being beaten up by the sons of my town’s mayor gave me an early introduction to the privileges of political power), and church (being chewed out by a pastor for something someone else did gave me an early introduction to religion), followed by bad experiences in grammar school (being ordered around by teachers gave me an early education on…well…education), followed by bad experiences in high school, followed by bad experiences in my first jobs, followed by bad experiences in the US Army, followed by poor employment, under employment, unemployment, on welfare, homeless, in prison and in “The Hole” in prison.

So, yeah, there’s a link between all that and my posts. 🙂 I’ve learned a lot in the last 62 years about how utterly screwed up human society and human nature is.

David July 26, 2011 2:45 AM

There’s a playground opposite my house. Anecdotally, I’d say that the children climbing the highest or spinning the fastest are doing it for one reason only – to show off to their peers. Although perhaps that is “developing a sense of mastery”, it’s not in the sense that the report authors intended.

Later in the evening, the younger children are replaced by slightly older, and by dusk the playground is populated by kids in their mid-teens. All, to some extent or another, are showing off – establishing some form of hierarchy.

vwm July 26, 2011 2:49 AM

“Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,”

Funny. I’d have guessed it’s the other way around.

Steve Jones July 26, 2011 2:59 AM

Growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I did all those things on the “risky play” list and it was just normal.

Kids, including my own, are really over-protected these days.

Zaphod July 26, 2011 4:25 AM

@Gabriel: “That in his generation, kids were taught to use knives, shoot, hunt game”… In the UK, at least, most of this is illegal now.

Even carrying a sub 3 inch folding pen knife can get you into a lot of trouble. The chattering classes have demonized knives almost as much as firearms.


Jonadab July 26, 2011 6:14 AM

The old jungle gyms which were a lattice
of metal bars with the whole thing mounted
on top of asphalt were unnecessarily

Asphalt playgrounds are really only common in urban slum neighborhoods. Elsewhere, almost all playgrounds have grass, and almost all of the rest have sand or wood chips.

Besides, the jungle gyms aren’t nearly as dangerous as the swings. In any case, the real danger is the children themselves. If the supervising teacher (WHY is there only ever one, no matter how many dozen children are all out there playing at once?) gets distracted for too long by something going on on the other side of the playground… children can be quite brutal to one another.

Not really anonymous July 26, 2011 7:48 AM

I disagree about the relative danger of the old jungle gyms and swings. The old jungle gyms had metal bars between you and the ground, so that you were likely to bash yourself on one on your way towards the ground if you slipped. If you got a little unlucky on how you bashed yourself, you could lose some teeth or get significantly injured.
And this risk was mostly pointless. Other designs could allow for climbing, where there was a mostly clear path to the ground so that slipping would be a lot less likely to result in significant injury.

Gabriel July 26, 2011 9:48 AM

Speaking of kids learning from danger, does anyone think the teens attacked by a bear in Alaska will be stronger (in experience)? They were undergoing training, but panicked, due to lack of experience (and no experienced guide with them), and ran instead of playing dead. of course as always some news sources, such as the CNN source, suggests something different, that they yelled at the bear before it approached them. I’ll assume the former is correct.

tommy July 26, 2011 6:14 PM

@ Moderator:

OK, here’s a secondary source with plenty of primary sources linked:

I knew enough about it to make an intelligent statement about it, and the sources bear me out. Not all statements made here are sourced. (If Clive sourced all of his, Bruce would run out of disk space. 😉 The comparisons cited by Nobody are ludicrous and utterly irrelevant to the meaning of the quotation.

Is it okay to mention “essay”, if a 2200-word essay contains 100 words of verse, or a 6300-word essay contains 900 words of verse? The bulk of the info is in the footnotes, with the verse part being an entertaining memory hook.

FWIW, the two mentioned here were in fact scholarly essays, which is something many people here link to (although they may or may not have written them), and were written by one with the qualifications to write them, as given: MBA in the field.

Not trying to be troublesome; only want to understand what the rules are. I don’t sell anything or get any monetary or other gain from said compositions; only trying to get the facts out to a populace fed all kinds of distortions by media and politicians. I won’t use the P-word again.

Moderator July 26, 2011 8:44 PM


It really doesn’t matter that the pages contain parodies, or that they’re in verse, or anything like that. The problem is the vastly excessive number of times you were bringing them up — averaging more than once per day. Even if they were security essays relevant to the thread topics, that would still be an awful lot of promotion of your own offsite writings.

Mostly, though, they’re not on-topic at all. A House tribute certainly isn’t. Yes, it would have been okay to mention the hygeine hypothesis without a source, but a TV drama is obviously not a good source, and using it as one doesn’t make your tribute to the show on-topic. The other thread is even worse: your attempts to get people to read your essay/parody were dragging the thread away from security topics and onto the banking crisis.

Of course, you’re not the only one who gets off the subject of security sometimes. But you are the only one constantly injecting references to your own off-topic writings into threads, and that needs to stop.

To make it clear: from now on, simply don’t refer to those pages at all. Put whatever link you want in the URL field, but write your comments as if those pages don’t exist.

William Lee July 27, 2011 8:36 AM

We’ve seen this coming for a long time, I think. I recall as a child (more years ago than I want to admit) not being allowed to climb the trees on the playground. Several years later the trees were cut down for ‘safety’. Much of the playground equipment had been replaced with lower-to-the-ground versions or removed entirely. This was clearly an overreaction brought about by insurance fees – never once during my years there was there a single injury requiring hospital treatment, let alone a fatality.

TFA was weak in it’s presentation, but I agree with the overall sentiment.

@Dirk Praet:
“a massive influx of disenfranchised people from other regions with an entirely different mindset” Wow. Just had to call you out on the blatant racist/xenophobic/anti-immigrant comment. Nothing personal, but I hope humanity eventually evolves beyond these sorts of irrational fears, but if TFA is any indication, we’re instilling more irrational fears into our children than we are preventing.

David Harmon July 28, 2011 10:58 PM

“Not really anonymous: Actually, for any significant drop, hitting bars on the way down is likely to produce much less injury than a “mostly clear path to the ground”. Remember, each impact does damage at most linear to the height you’ve fallen so far, and intermediate impacts also divide up energy from the overall fall. Not to say you couldn’t do better than bare-steel bars, but falling through empty space to the ground isn’t better. (Actually, you know what is better? Tree branches! Softer and more flexible than metal, and easier to grip, too!)

Yes, there’s a lot of status competition going on, but that’s one of the big drivers for hazardous behavior in general, with the same basic issue: If you nerf the playgrounds, the kids will find someplace else to show off, which will likely be completely uncontrolled and quite likely far more dangerous.

There’s also the point that children can take falls and other impacts better than adults can, mostly because of the square-cube law. Not that they’re invulnerable, but an adult’s “I wouldn’t dare climb that high” is not necessarily a good guide. Certainly when I was a kid, I routinely took jumps that I wouldn’t dare now!

averros July 29, 2011 4:24 AM

Domestication shrinks brains, reduces cognitive capabilities, and infantilizes animals. The reasons for that are both in reduced selective pressure for abilities to fend off predators and to locate food, and in selection for docility and submissiveness.

In works the same way in people. To somebody who has grown in wilder parts of the world, most Westerners appear to be quite infantile and submissive, constantly rationalizing the obedience to any random stupid laws.

Hannu July 31, 2011 11:17 AM

This is discussed in the book “Free Range Kids” and the blog by the author. Worth a read. No relation, just liked the book.

The situation in the US looks really crazy from outside. Unfortunately the “too much child safety” trend is spreading everywhere so we need to defend common sense.

Victor January 6, 2012 12:37 AM

I am too against too much child safety. Actually when you stop your kids for doing something it gives a negative effect on their mental status and yo have noticed that they always do those things which we say them not to. So it would be better to give them space and let them learn from their ups and falls.

GeorgeEAnderson April 15, 2021 12:45 PM

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