Conquering a Dragon

The case for bringing more risk, and more fun, to American playgrounds.

Posted Feb 25, 2018

Sara Zaske
Source: Sara Zaske

One of my favorite stories from Germany is about Sophia and the Dragon. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s about my daughter and a playground.

Berlin has some amazing playgrounds: all of them much taller and more dangerous than the ones in the US—and much more fun. We had one of the best in our neighborhood Drachenspielplatz, and yes, it had a big Drachen, dragon, right in the middle of it.

That dragon was not only tall but scary looking with big red teeth. Kids could climb inside its mouth and then zip down the long metal slides coming out from its sides.

Sophia was terrified of it. At age three, she would only play around the dragon. Then, she would only climb up its back and come right back down again—without trying anything else—for months and months.

One day, about two years later we were at the park and suddenly, I heard her call: “Mama! Mama!” I looked around panicked, thinking she’d hurt herself. Finally, I looked up. She was in the dragon’s teeth! Then, she flew down one of the giant slides! When she stood up, I could just see it. The pride. She had conquered her fear. I didn’t push her to do it. No one did. She had done it all by herself. That’s a big step for a five-year-old.

I am afraid that most American kids don’t get a chance to conquer a dragon. Most playgrounds in the US are short, plastic—safe but boring.

Sara Zaske
Source: Sara Zaske

Our kids are missing out not just on the fun but on the chance to grow. German risk researcher Siegbert Warwitz told me that adventurous playgrounds can be a “good way of self-testing for children”— a way to find out what they can and cannot do.

The importance risky play is backed by research. A 2015 systemic review of twenty-one papers on the subject by researches from the University of British Columbia and the Child & Family Research Institute at BC Children’s Hospital in Canada found that risky outdoor play was not only healthy for children but encouraged development of creativity, social skills, and resilience. In particular, the review pointed to positive results from playgrounds that offered natural elements, changes in height, and the freedom for children to choose their own activities.

“These spaces give children a chance to learn about risk and learn about their own limits,” said Mariana Brussoni, the lead author of the study.

The adventure playground movement has offered some new wild and creative places for kids, and new ones are popping up in New York City, Southern California, and even in places like Omaha, Nebraska and Asheville, North Carolina. But every kid needs exciting and interesting places to play. Maybe we can’t give them all adventure playgrounds, but they all deserve some adventure in their own neighborhood.

We all know what's to blame for our boring, safe playgrounds in the US — lawsuits (or the fear of them). So it is up to us, we parents, to bring back some reasonable risk to playgrounds. We should not only vocally advocate for them at city council meetings but also be willing to sign legal releases and curb our impulse to sue when accidents happen.

Julianna Zdunich, used with permission
Source: Julianna Zdunich, used with permission

And accidents will happen. They happen now, even on our supposedly safe playgrounds in the US —incidentally, these accidents happen at about the same rate as in Europe, where they have playgrounds that look like this one (left). 

So if our "safe" playgrounds don’t actually make kids any safer: why not reintroduce some creativity and risk to our playgrounds, so our children can learn and have some fun?

A few ideas from Germany we could import: rope climbing pyramids, metal slides that actually let kids go fast, zip lines, in-ground trampolines, giant boats, and towers with unsteady bridges between them (see a few examples following this post).

No matter how we try to hide it from our kids, they will soon learn that nothing is 100 percent safe and life can by scary and dangerous. Everyone needs to learn how to face their fears and manage risk at some point. It will be a lot easier for our children to deal with the very real, bigger risks later in life if they have already had a chance to conquer a dragon.

This post is adapted from Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children by Sara Zaske. 

More playground ideas from Germany:

Sara Zaske
Source: Sara Zaske
Sara Zaske
Source: Sara Zaske
Julianna Zdunich, used with permission
Source: Julianna Zdunich, used with permission
Julianna Zdunich used with permission
Source: Julianna Zdunich used with permission
Julianna Zdunich, used with permission
Source: Julianna Zdunich, used with permission