Playgrounds: Hazardous or Risky?

Adolescent Girls Riding Slide ca. 2000Play is play. It has elements of being self initiated and process oriented, and it should be fun! However, what happens when play becomes ‘dangerous’ and we suddenly stop playing and remove our kids from that immediate danger? Do we panic? Do we scream? What do we do?

The first thing we need to understand is that there is a difference between hazards and risks in the play environment. Hazards can easily lead to a dangerous situation whereas risks in a risky environment may not necessarily lead to a dangerous situation.

Hazardous = As unsafe as possible (it is clearly dangerous, and the chances of injury are high)

Risky = As safe as possible: Given the situation and the possibilities, there is an element of risk, but it is not hazardous.

Think about it as a stop light:

Green light: unstructured play on a brand new play space, with a mixture of natural and artificial play parts that are all safe and usable by all children. Within that space there are no hazards and children are playing naturally, jumping off small objects, running in various directions, and having fun.

Yellow light: the same as above except there are more opportunities for children to take risks. For example, the rocks they are jumping off may be higher, there may be a few logs they can walk and balance along, or they may have opportunities to play going from high to low objects. There may be some dirt, rust and or bugs present. However, these opportunities to take risks in this environment are present but are not hazardous.

Red light: Here the play space would have rusted, jagged artificial structures, old boards would allow for a child’s foot to easily poke through, and nuts/bolts would be exposed in multiple areas of movement. This environment would be a hazardous environment where it would no longer be risky to use this play space, but in fact hazardous.

Ultimately, it is up to you as a caregiver, parent, or playground supervisor as to what you choose to expose your children to. However, it is important to always ask yourself before allowing your child to play, “Is this play environment risky or hazardous to my child?”


Ryan & RioBy: Ryan Fahey, B.Ed, BKin

Ryan is a new regular blogger for the US Play Coalition. He is working to develop our Play Ambassador program and spread the word about the Value of Play.