David Mills links to some essays dealing with the topic over at First Things:
Indeed, the article with which [Amanda] Erickson begins, Playgrounds that rip up the safety rules, quotes the Danish designer of “nature playgrounds” Helle Nebelong, who makes a practical argument that too safe encourages children in being less safe:
“I am convinced that standardised playgrounds are dangerous, just in another way: When the distance between all the rungs in a climbing net or a ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where he puts his feet. Standardisation is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements. This lesson cannot be carried over to all the knobbly and asymmetrical forms, with which one is confronted throughout life.”
It reminds me of playing hockey with friends on small frozen streams or ponds, which always included small islands or tufts of grass sticking up through the ice. You would have to keep them in mind as you skated, especially if you were playing defense and skating backwards, and having to do so made you a more alert player and gave you some experience in keeping track of several conditions (your teammates, the other team, the islands and tufts of grass) at once. It probably didn’t teach us much, but it taught us something. And it added to the pleasure of the game to boot.
Being a parent is a weird thing. You want to protect your children more than anything and yet you realize that the best preparation for the knobbly and asymmetrical forms of life is lots of practice when they're younger.
My children are very young and one of them is quite independent while the other sticks a bit closer to my skirt. But I encourage both of them to play hard and learn their limits.
Sadly, we're in an area where the playgrounds are pretty boring and you have to fight just to keep the swing sets in the old ones.
When I went to a funeral in California in November, my brother and I went back to our old playground and were flooded with memories of the unsafe merry-go-round, tether ball poles, and rickety slide.
Yes, body parts were broken. Yes, we got scared sometimes. And yes, we were completely unsupervised 90% of the time. I think my parents were pretty smart.