But the final irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have. According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000, or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans. The number of deaths hasn’t changed much either. From 2001 through 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported 100 deaths associated with playground equipment—an average of 13 a year, or 10 fewer than were reported in 1980. Head injuries, runaway motorcycles, a fatal fall onto a rock—most of the horrors Sweeney and Frost described all those years ago turn out to be freakishly rare, unexpected tragedies that no amount of safety-proofing can prevent.
Did kids used to die more often?
If we're matching anecdote to anecdote: in my neighborhood, 2nd graders walk themselves if they don't have to cross a big street, and walk with their parents if they do. 3rd graders all walk to school themselves.
In the summer of 1975 John Marshall and Roger Hart documented the outdoor play activities of the children in a small Vermont town. Roger had just completed his dissertation from Clark University on the geography of children. John's 13 hours of 16mm footage comprised part of his detailed research on children's outdoor lives, studying the role of play in children's psychological development as well as its relationship to their understanding of nature and their surroundings. The long takes of children completely absorbed in their own private worlds provide a rare document of the complexity, creativity, and spontaneity of children at play.
A year after shooting, Roger received an invitation from the BBC to make a film on children's creative activity outdoors. John's footage of the children's imaginative play constituted more than half of the program Play and Place: Transforming Environments produced for the Open University division of the BBC. On the day of broadcast it was selected as the "Pick of the Day" by The London Times, and the director of the BBC called the film's producer from his vacation to congratulate him on the remarkably moving footage of children's free play.
For example, beginning in 2011, Swanson Primary School in New Zealand submitted itself to a university experiment and agreed to suspend all playground rules, allowing the kids to run, climb trees, slide down a muddy hill, jump off swings, and play in a “loose-parts pit” that was like a mini adventure playground. The teachers feared chaos, but in fact what they got was less naughtiness and bullying—because the kids were too busy and engaged to want to cause trouble, the principal said.
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