German Insurance Companies Demand Perilous Playgrounds So That Kids Can Learn About Risk

Germany has increased the risk of its playgrounds. Some climbing frames are up to three stories high. This is what they are asking.

The insurance companies. They wish for children to become “risk capable.” They believe that “safety culture” is actually limiting kids’ ability to assess risk.

Gever Tulley says, “This understanding of childhood is a fantastic step in understanding how children learn to recognize risk and minimize it.”

Tulley ought to know. Tulley is the founder of San Francisco Brightworks School, author of 50 Unsafe Things You Should Not Let Your Children Do

In Germany, the idea of allowing children to learn basic climbing skills has gained popularity. An influential  2004 study had found that “children who had improved their motor skills in playgrounds at an early age were less likely to suffer accidents as they got older,” according to The Guardian Additionally:

As young people spend more time at home, the German umbrella association of statutory accidents insurers called last year for more playgrounds to help them develop risk competence.

That’s music to an actuaries’ ears—and also to some parents’. Siobhan, a New Yorker who moved to Germany with her friend Siobhan. When her daughter was elementary school age, Siobhan recalls that the school had replaced standard playground equipment with four thick, tall trees. The branches were removed and interconnected by wide ropes and rubber bridges. At its tallest, the whole thing measured six feet. However, the trees were polished to make them slippery.

Siobhan says that the first week after they had been installed, a girl fell and fractured her arm. Being an American I was nervous about the outrages that were sure to ensue. When I heard the conversations of the other parents during pick-up, my stomach was clenched. What was it that I heard? “Children must learn their limits!” No lawsuits were filed to remove the equipment.

Tim Gill, the author of “The Acceptable Approach to Risk” says this acceptance is beginning to grow beyond Germany.

Although the American appetite for risk is slower, New York City constructed its first adventure playground in 2016 with nails and hammers. They stand by their credo, “No parents allowed.” As a participant in play conferences, it is clear that play scholars want more fun playgrounds.

This is unfortunately a result of our cultural tendency to underestimate kids and overestimate danger. We also hire trial lawyers. One family sued Howell Township school district in New Jersey for their daughter’s injury from the slide. They received a settlement worth $170,000. Their lawyer argued the slope of the slide was too steep as it was located at a 35-degree angle rather than 30.

Perhaps out of fear of just that kind of thing, one school district—Richland, Washington— just plain got rid of its swings, arguing that “swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment.”

It’s because monkey bars and all the see-saws, merry go-rounds, etc. have been cleared away.

So, American children are largely a safe, mulch-chip-free, non-slip, plastic-colored, primo-colored space. German insurance executives might describe it as “a place of risk-ignorance.”