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Plastic Playground Lessons

When I was eight years old, my elementary school spent thousands of dollars replacing our playground. The playground wasn’t in disrepair – the ladders were strong, the slides were slick and swings swung from a sturdy bar held up by well-built posts.

However, the playground was made of wood and tires. Occasionally, if you weren’t careful, the wood could give you splinters. On sunny days in the summer, the tires were hot to the touch.

So, the parents and the school came together to build a new playground. Shining plastic replaced the wood. A netted-tower replaced the swings. Even the ground was changed – soft mulch replaced the pebbles that scraped our knees when we fell. The result was a playground so safe that a child would struggle to injure themselves even if they tried.

On our original playground, there were consequences for our actions. We learned to be responsible for ourselves – if you don’t want to hurt your hand, don’t touch the hot tire.

On the new playground, we were shielded from those responsibilities. There were no risks left for us to take. Implicitly, the renovation of our playground sent a message to me and my classmates: it is better to avoid pain completely than to take a risk and learn from it.

This lesson isn’t just an anecdote – hyper safe playgrounds measurably impact children’s sense of risk and responsibility. When playgrounds become risk-free environments, children become less responsible and struggle to gauge risks.

The older I’ve gotten, the more I see my elementary school’s playground renovation as a symbol for the world we’ve built for ourselves over the last few decades.

Many of us seem ready to give up personal growth in exchange for comfort. We avoid tough conversations. We avoid learning from people who disagree with us. We willingly trade the tires for the plastic playset. This is a tremendous loss.

People aren’t fragile like glass. A bit of damage doesn’t break us. We are resilient, like muscle. By choosing to endure a bit of pain or to take some risks, we become stronger, healthier and better equipped to face future challenges.

This is not an endorsement to be reckless. There’s a thick line between healthy risk-taking and self-destructive behavior. Set goals for what you want to become and be willing to endure a bit of pain to become that person.

We can choose to make our lives like a plastic playground – safe, riskless and stagnant. Or, like Brene Brown says, we can choose to dare greatly. We can choose to take risks, to embrace responsibility and to learn throughout life. Or we can stay in a bubble and be comfortable, never exploring how much there is in the world. What do you choose?

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