Why are children's play areas padded

The padded child

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A girl holds on to the rope and climbs the climbing spider step by step. As soon as it has reached the middle, the mother warns from below: "Not too high!"

A typical scene on any playground in Austria: Parents slow down their children when they run around. Children who, depending on their age, gain experience, get injuries, reach their limits, start all over again: none of them. "The feeling of risk has changed," says Nicole Slupetzky, Federal Youth Director of the Alpine Club. So-called "helicopter parents" panickedly rotate around their children, wanting to prevent injuries - and thereby restricting the little ones in their movement. This is the wrong way, says Slupetzky. "Parents should give children freedom so that they get security and self-confidence."

The Alpine Club is registering an alarming development in its sports camps: some children can no longer move on forest paths without falling, let alone climbing a tree or rolling off properly if they fall. Even jumping from a small height scares them. They become more and more alienated from nature, their sense of movement is weak.

An observation that Susanne Ring-Dimitriou has scientifically proven. As part of the "Salzburg together against obesity" (Salto) project, the sports scientist examined the movement skills of 300 kindergarten children in Salzburg. The results are clear: in every fifth child between the ages of four and six, the motor skills are not age-appropriate. In addition, every fourth child is overweight or obese.

Some children no longer know how to jump properly

"Some children don't even know how to jump properly anymore," says Ring-Dimitriou. Some cannot land properly after a jump, others do not swing properly when throwing the ball or fail to catch. A German health survey showed that every third child is unable to take three steps backwards. It is important to teach the little ones these basic skills, says the sports scientist. "Because if I can't do something, then I don't like to do it either."

A motor skills test in kindergartens showed that there are enormous gender-specific differences, explains the Salto project manager. Girls are better at balancing, but do much worse than boys at ball games, running and jumping. Experts call this "gender doing". "These preferences are set at an early age by the parents," says Ring-Dimitriou. Parents unconsciously played ball with boys and danced with girls. "These are traditional role models that are also associated with sporting activities," says the scientist.

The different levels of movement are not a new phenomenon. Studies show that around 20 percent of children used to exercise below average. Today's children are no more pummeled than those of the 70s or 80s. Nevertheless, one phenomenon has increased: that of over-concerned parents. "Some carry their child into the group room in the kindergarten and don't let go, even though the child has long wanted to leave," says Ring-Dimitriou.

A six-year-old boy turns the carousel on the playground as fast as he can. His brother stops the rotating device and stands at the steering wheel in the middle. From the outside, the younger brother pushes the carousel again, it rotates more and more wildly. Immediately the father of the two intervenes. "Go down there. If you fall, you'll just hurt yourself." The older one wants to keep playing, he feels safe. His papa remains strict: "Get down!"

Children learn to walk by falling

"The parents are often the spoilsport. The children are slowed down," says Slupetzky from the Alpine Club. "Parents should not protect their children from the world, but teach them how to deal with possible dangers." One can trust children a lot more. "They automatically climb up everywhere. They can do that even without five-fold safety protection," emphasizes the Vice President of the Alpine Club. Slupetzky advises parents to be a little more relaxed. They should trust that their children will go their own way, "and it doesn't have to be paved".

Children should also be able to fall down this way. "Children learn by falling," emphasizes Jürgen Einwanger. The social pedagogue supervises a training program for children and young people called Risk'n'Fun at the Alpine Club. In the camps, children should learn to make independent decisions on the mountain.

"Parents who don't let go of their child take away their development opportunities," says Einwanger. This has an impact on the physical response and psychological development as well as social consequences. Anxiety disorders and depression are increasing. Einwanger advocates that children should also fight for a while. There is also no reason why they should not learn how to use a pocket knife.

Playgrounds are increasingly reminiscent of secured cages

But children today live in a more supervised environment. And, especially in the city, open spaces are becoming increasingly limited. The architect Anna Detzhofer criticizes the lovelessly designed playgrounds. With their fencing, they remind them of a "cage for children". The building technology law is to blame for the often unimaginative implementation. It states: A children's playground has a sand pit, a slide, a swing and plenty of seats. Many property developers limit themselves to this minimum.

Social worker Jürgen Einwanger also thinks little of the fenced-in devices. "Playgrounds are completely unsuitable for what children should learn." Standardized climbing frames are so low that children cannot explore their limits, and there is no opportunity to run around. Sports scientist Susanne Ring-Dimitriou finds the "padded cells" in shopping centers where children are parked the worst. "There they just sit around or hide. But children have to fall, come into contact with mud and dirt, dig in the earth."

Nevertheless, it is still better to send the children to the playgrounds than to wrap them in cotton wool at home. "Outside they meet other children, challenge each other and learn from the older ones." Provided the parents allow it.

A playground in Vienna, after all with a small hill. A boy lies down on the ground, rolls down the grassy slope. Two girls watch him skeptically at first, then they roll after him, giggling. "Don't, you get dirty and you bump into each other," the mothers pound over from the bench. There's nothing like falling right. That trains for life. (Stefanie Ruep, May 13, 2018)