THE BLOG
05/10/2010 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I'm Gonna Sue! How Lawsuits are Depriving our Children of Play

There was a fire at the playground I recently visited in London. But no one seemed terribly concerned. That's because it was in the fire pit, where children are encouraged to burn scraps of wood.

Yes, you heard right -- the Glamis Adventure Playground is described by its manager as a "back to the future adventure playground, where children can play with earth, air, fire and water and muck about with tools."

Sound like a legal nightmare? A lawsuit waiting to happen? Actually in Europe, these "adventure playgrounds" are quite popular. The have been around since World War II, when Theodore Sorensen, a Danish landscape architect, observed children's delight over playing with rubble and scraps. He imagined "a junk playground in which children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality," taking risks in a controlled environment.

In Europe today, there are around a thousand adventure playgrounds across the continent. How many adventure playgrounds are there in the United States?

Three.

In our aggressively litigious culture, we have become so obsessed with controlling risk that children are missing out on opportunities to grow and learn. Instead of accepting that getting hurt is an inevitable part of childhood -- and can actually be a healthy learning experience -- we have somehow come to believe that injuries of any kind should be avoided at all costs. Otherwise, someone better pay!

Consider these sobering facts:

  • According to a study in The Economic Journal, Americans spend more on civil litigation than any other industrialized country.
  • According to the American Bar Association, as of 2006, there were over 1 million lawyers in the United States -- more per capita than any other country.
  • Every year, 1.4 million lawsuits are filed in California alone.

The result? Here are three true stories:

  • Broward County, Fla. Safety Director Jerry Graziose ordered kids to stop running at county playgrounds in 2005 by posting "no running" signs.
  • In Hazelton, PA, even "no running" signs didn't help. When community member Robert Rodgers cut his foot while running and jumping into the community swimming pool, he sued for medical expenses and was awarded $7,000. Afraid of copycat lawsuits, owner Evelyn Graham closed the pool.
  • In Montville, NJ, the city council banned sledding on the most popular hill because after a young girl hurt her leg while sledding, her family sued the town. They won25,000. Similarly, in Nebraska, the Supreme Court found that public entities are not protected under law, prompting two Omaha parks to enact sledding bans.

No wonder adventure playgrounds haven't exactly taken off here. Kids wielding hammers on playgrounds is unthinkable to most of us, and forget playing with fire!

Miraculously, the three adventure playgrounds in Berkeley, Irvine and Huntington Beach have all been around since the 1970s and continue to thrive. Let's hope that more can follow their lead. In the words of Alex Gilliam, author of the Public Workshop blog, "It is remarkable and for many people, entirely counterintuitive to think that giving children the opportunity to experience more risk, to have more ownership over the world around them, to learn the things that interest them and to actually fall down once in a while is really a good thing."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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