Learning the ropes: why Germany is building risk into its playgrounds

·5 min read

Towering over a woodland playground on the northernmost outskirts of Berlin, the Triitopia climbing frame is the kind to cause worry in any anxious parent.

Children aged six and upwards wind their way through four stacked steel-wire buckyballs and scramble up dangling rope ladders until they reach a platform about 10 metres above the forest floor. Parents can try to keep up with their young mountaineers as they ascend through the rope spiderweb, but they might get left behind in the tightly woven mesh.

If scaling the Triitopia looks risky, that is the point: built in 2018, the climbing tower in Berlin-Frohnau’s Ludwig Lesser Park is emblematic of a trend that has accelerated in Germany over the last five years. Playgrounds, a growing number of educators, manufacturers and town planners argue, must stop striving for absolute safety and instead create challenging microcosms that teach children to navigate difficult situations even if the consequence is the odd broken bone.

“Playgrounds are islands of free movement in a dangerous motorised environment,” says Prof Rolf Schwarz of Karlsruhe University of Education, who advises councils and playground designers. “If we want children to be prepared for risk, we need to allow them to come into contact with risk.”

Even insurance companies agree. One influential 2004 study found that children who had improved their motor skills in playgrounds at an early age were less likely to suffer accidents as they got older. With young people spending an increasing amount of time in their own home, the umbrella association of statutory accident insurers in Germany last year called for more playgrounds that teach children to develop “risk competence”.

The trade fair for leisure and sports facilities, taking place this week in Cologne, will give an impression of what such playgrounds could look like. The maker of the Triitopia climbing tower, Berliner Seilfabrik, will showcase its new seven-metre-high “DNA tower” and the 10-metre “Tower4” with a swirling metal slide to reward enthusiastic climbers.

“Our designs have significantly increased in height in recent years,” says the co-director David Köhler, whose company has been making rope-based playground structures since the 1970s.

“Children may feel insecure when they first climb in our nets, but this is actually what makes the structures even safer. Because when you are feeling insecure, you are also extra careful.”

An intellectual tradition of thinking seriously about play, and versatile gaps in urban landscapes after the second world war mean Germany has a history of experimental play areas: many cities have “junk playgrounds”, such as Berlin’s Kolle 37, where children can build their own structures and parents are allowed to enter only one day a week. However, the dividing line between Abenteuerspielplätze (“adventure playgrounds”) and traditional play zones is increasingly disappearing.

“The holy trinity of playgrounds – swing, seesaw and slide – is in decline,” says Steffen Strasser of Playparc, one of about 60 German manufacturers who do not only supply the country’s estimated 120,000 playgrounds but export around the world.

In Cologne, Playparc will showcase its Etolis range of platforms with suspension bridges that are deliberately wobbly, equipped with minimal guard railing and no safety net. Strasser bristled at the mention of the low platforms surrounded by rubber matting that are still ubiquitous in British and American playgrounds.

“Modern playgrounds explore the limits of what is permissible within the regulations,” says Strasser. “When we design new playground structures, we try to build in challenges: an obstacle, for example, that a child may fail to overcome the first nine times but then manages at the tenth attempt.”

“The aim is to allow the greatest amount of freedom while guaranteeing the greatest amount of safety. We are not trying to avoid every broken leg possible.”

Germany is often perceived to be a politically and economically risk-averse nation, where everyday life is regulated by a strict regime of rules and regulations. Yet, when it comes to playgrounds, the stereotype is misleading: here, it’s the strict policing of standards that enables a risk-accepting culture in the first place.

Playground equipment in Germany is certified by the TÜV, the same association that provides German drivers with the equivalent of an MOT or certificate of roadworthiness for vehicles. Accordingly, the Triitopia tower in Berlin-Frohnau is encased with boards and netting to ensure no child can take a tumble from a height above three metres. In the spiderweb inside the structure, the maximum fall height is 1.8 metres. A sign urges parents to take off their children’s cycle helmets in order to eliminate a strangulation risk.

Once a climbing frame has got past the TÜV, however, manufacturers can use the certificate to defend themselves in court against lawsuits relating to accidents. In the US, where certification in most states is carried out by those who bring a playground structure to the market, manufacturers are more vulnerable to legal action and often more risk-averse.

The TÜV also trains its own playground inspectors, who are taught to not always apply regulations literally but to carry out flexible risk assessments. The UK’s national standards body, the British Standards Institute, by contrast, does not inspect playgrounds but outsources the job to private companies, which can lead to a culture of box-ticking.

Even so, Germany’s dizzying climbing towers could soon become blueprints for playgrounds in Britain and the US. The International Organisation for Standardisation is reviewing its standards for sports and recreational equipment, and could in the future encourage playground designers to consider not just the risks but the benefits of wobbly bridges, lopsided steps and tree-tall climbing frames.

“We are seeing a slow shift in attitudes,” says David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University. “There’s a realisation [in the UK] that playgrounds have become too sanitised: if you look at them only as a series of potential hazards, you are missing something important.”

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