When Down Is Good

Is the word seesaw fated to become one of those words whose real meaning — to rock up and down — is rooted in an object that no longer exists?

While the broader meaning of the word is expected to continue to be a part of the English language for some time to come, the playground installation known as the seesaw is now a rarity. Children growing up these days may never see an actual seesaw. They will understand if they are told that someone seesaws in opinion or mood, or that the economy is seesawing between high and low unemployment — but they do not connect the term with the scene of two kids seated on opposite ends of a wooden plank mounted on a fulcrum, one going up while the other goes down.

If you cannot recall the last time you saw a seesaw, the National Program for Playground Safety has provided the data to assure you that you are not imagining things (or the opposite, missing what’s really there). In 2000, an estimated 55 percent of playgrounds around the country had a seesaw. By 2004, the last year for which data was available, that number had fallen to 11 percent. In New York City, where seesaws have not been installed in playgrounds for over 30 years, they are almost gone.

The elimination of the seesaw has been the result of a combination of factors, including government anxiety over injury lawsuits, federal safety guidelines for playgrounds, and parental concern. Seesaws haven’t been the only victim of the new safety regime; monkey bars, swings and slides, more common culprits of injuries, have also disappeared. The passing of the seesaw has also seen the passing of tailbone and spinal injuries, falls, pinched fingers, and splinters caused by them.

Such injuries were never very common, and those who grew up in the last century do not generally think of them as a dangerous installation, but municipalities chose to play it safe. Even though current federal guidelines allow for seesaws if they have safety precautions such as car tires embedded under the seats, many localities have simply done away with them, replacing them with less ambiguously safe equipment like low slides and climbing walls. Softer surfaces have replaced asphalt, making falls less serious.

Yet, recent reports say that parents are not entirely happy with the safer playgrounds. It’s not merely nostalgia for their own childhood memories of the old equipment. There is a growing awareness that something has been lost, and not just broken arms and skinned knees.

The experts — not necessarily the same ones who warned us of the dangers of seesaws — are lately saying that the old, banned playground items actually offer positive value for child development. Studies have shown that anxiety over the long-term psychological impact of a bad fall is in the mind of the parent, not the child. The research revealed that a child hurt in a fall before the age of nine is less likely as a teenager to suffer from fear of heights.

On the contrary, by gradual exposure to heights and other dangers, children learn to manage their fears and to better assess risks and negotiate hazards later in life.

Psychologists at the Norwegian University for Science and Technology have drawn a correlating conclusion from their research. “Paradoxically,” the psychologists write, “we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

The benefits for physical development were highlighted by Lauren Drobnjak, a physical therapist in Cleveland: “By rapidly moving the child through vertical space, seesaws provide input to a child’s vestibular — or balance regulation — system in a way that no other playground equipment can.” In other words, seesawing is good for you.

Even the dreaded falls are good for you. Children learn strength and coordination from hitting the ground and pushing themselves back up, she said.

They also learn something at least as important: that in life we sometimes fall down, but we pick ourselves up and get back on; and if we get hurt, even if having your arm in a cast is certainly no fun, it’s not the end of the world, either. It’s part of the risk of normal living and growing up.

Having made the case in favor of seesaws, we now have to ask, should we bring them back? Should municipalities start to reintroduce the bad old stuff? Can we, as parents, put our kids in a play environment that will pose a danger to them? Doesn’t it run counter to our obligation to safeguard our children and protect them from harm?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. While recognizing that seesaws and the like entail reasonable risks and offer real benefits, we can at the same time make the slamdowns less jarring with embedded tires and the inevitable falls less injurious with soft surfaces.

We cannot keep our children from hurts and falls, but we can and should cushion their falls and help mend their hurts.