The Risks of Playground Safety

New York Times science writer (and longtime libertarian favorite) John Tierney had a great piece yesterday under the headline, “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” As Tierney observes:

The old tall jungle gyms and slides disappeared from most American playgrounds across the country in recent decades because of parental concerns, federal guidelines, new safety standards set by manufacturers and — the most frequently cited factor — fear of lawsuits.

Some researchers argue that the safety benefits of the revamped designs have been oversold; kids can break bones falling from not-so-high slides onto relatively soft surfaces, for example. One researcher outlines what sounds like a teeter-totter version of the Peltzman hypothesis: “If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks.”

Moreover, playgrounds with an element of genuine, unmistakable risk can offer children “the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery,” thus helping them develop into adults who are venturesome rather than timid. Tierney closes the piece with a perfect pair of quotes from a Bronx 10-year-old and her mother:

“I was scared at first,” she explained. “But my mother said if you don’t try, you’ll never know if you could do it. So I took a chance and kept going. At the top I felt very proud.” As she headed back for another climb, her mother, Orkidia Rojas, looked on from a bench and considered the pros and cons of this unfamiliar equipment.

“It’s fun,” she said. “I’d like to see it in our playground. Why not? It’s kind of dangerous, I know, but if you just think about danger you’re never going to get ahead in life.”

If only the judges and legal academics who’ve made war on principles like “assumption of risk” in liability law were as insightful.