Why Lowering the Monkey Bars is a Bad Idea

In light of increasing pressure to increase the safety of children’s playgrounds, many psychologists argue that more dangerous playground equipment may actually be preferable. It’s all about overcoming fears, before they become a bigger problem: 

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquerphobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

“Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,” they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this “anti-phobic effect” helps explain the evolution of children’s fondness for thrill-seeking. While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive – why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? – the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.

“Paradoxically,” the psychologists write, “we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

Sandseter and Kennair identify six categories of risky play: “1) Play with great heights; 2) Play with high speed; 3) Play with harmful tools; 4) Play near dangerous elements; 5) Rough?and?tumble play; and 6) Play where the children can ‘disappear’/get lost.”

It remains to be seen if these benefits are gained from risk that is vicariously experienced through videogame avatars, but it seems doubtful. 


-Richard Clark

(thx Mathias!)