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Why safe playgrounds aren’t great for kids

The case for “risky play.”

Christophe Haubursin/Vox

The stereotypical modern playground — with its bright colors and rubberized flooring — is designed to be clean, safe, and lawsuit-proof. But it isn’t necessarily the best design for kids.

For decades, US playground designers have worked on minimizing risk by reducing heights, softening surfaces, and limiting loose parts. But now, some are starting to experiment with creating risk: A growing body of research has found that risky outdoor play is a key part of children’s health, promoting social interactions, creativity, problem-solving, and resilience.

The most extreme departure from safety-first design is “adventure playgrounds,” which originated in World War II Denmark, where bomb sites became impromptu playgrounds. Filled with props like nails, hammers, saws, paint, tires, and wood planks, these spaces look more like junkyards than playgrounds, and parents are often kept outside the playground while children are chaperoned by staff. These layouts are now at the center of a big debate in playground design: How do you create environments that promote creativity while keeping kids safe?

Watch the video above to learn where the risky playground design philosophy comes from — and how it’s shaping play architecture today. You can find this video and all of Vox’s By Design series on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.

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