How Strange are our Dangers? How Dangerous are Strangers?

Editor’s Note:  I’m pleased to welcome play historian and expert Susan Solomon’s second column here at Playscapes.  In it, she challenges our overblown ‘fear of strangers’, and the limitations that fear places on how we design and use places for play.  Key quote:  ” If we see the playground as a potentially vibrant public space, then we have to rethink what it looks like and who goes there”

Watch for a permanent place for all of Susan’s “After the Deadline” columns in the blog sidebar coming soon! For now, read on…


How Strange are our Dangers? How Dangerous are Strangers?
by Susan Solomon

I have vivid memories of the trip my husband (who is also my trusted photographer) and I made to the Princes Diana Playground in Hyde Park, London. The playground opened in 2000 and we made our way there in 2004.  It was a bleak, bitterly cold December morning, just after the opening hour.  There were no children anywhere.  We walked up to a high gate and heard from an anonymous voice (with hindsight, the camera and speaker system were stunningly advanced for a decade ago) that we could not enter without a child.


The faceless gate did not want to hear that I had a contract to write a book about playgrounds and that this was a professional visit.  No kids meant no access.  I was that told that somewhere- quite far away-I could appeal the judgment but we were actually headed to the airport.  We settled for walking around the perimeter; my spouse took copious photos by placing his close up lens through the bars of the fence.


There are so many levels of silliness in this type of “protective” activity.  There were no children present; I had credentials; my husband could have documented every inch of the site if he had some nefarious activity in mind.  Annoyed, not offended, I recall this non-visit almost every time that I go to an urban public American playground.  While British colleagues tell me that the Diana playground is an aberration for the UK because it is a Royal Park that has its own rules, American urban playgrounds often have at least one sign on a fence that tells me I can come in only if I have a child in tow. New York City, for example, has park rules that create playground zones, where a child under twelve yeas old must accompany an adult.


It seems almost diabolical to question policy that presumes to shield youngsters from kidnappers and predators.   And, yet, we should ask if isolating playgrounds from the rest of the world is really necessary. Is it productive to relegate playgrounds to just children and their caregivers/parents?  Fear of strangers surely exists but is  “stranger danger” justified?

Comprehensive data about abductions, which curiously was not been compiled since 1999, points to the absurdity in guarding against all adults.  David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, confirms that nothing negative has changed in the intervening two and a half decades since the last big study.  Writing in a Washington Post op-ed (“Five Myths about Missing Children, ” March 10, 2013), Finkelhor notes that “children taken by strangers or slight acquaintances represent only one-hundredth of one percent of all missing children.”  Finkelhor  notes that FBI statistics and individual state findings indicate that there are “fewer missing persons of all ages- down 31 percent between 1997 and 2011.” In the few tragic cases where children were abducted and murdered, they were never snatched from playgrounds.  It is important to note, too, that Finkelhor, along with two colleagues, pointed out in a 2002 report (“Nonfamily Abducted Children: National Estimates and Characteristics”) that teenagers were the most likely victims in abduction.  Anyone who goes to an American playground knows that teens are the least likely demographic group to situate themselves there.


There are several reasons why we still fear strangers on playgrounds. As Justine Taylor wrote in her 2010 masters of arts paper (Pennsylvania State University): “Though abduction incidents perpetrated by nonfamily members (nonfamily abductions) and strangers (stereotypical kidnappings) are the rarest type of abduction offenses, they receive the most media attention.”  Sociologist Barry Glassner (The Culture of Fear, revised edition 2010) has pointed out that fear sells and there are industries (think about monitors, workshops, school assembly programs) in addition to the media that prey on our worst nightmares.  Parents, who want to make sure their children are not vulnerable, absorb the concerns and put pressure on local government. Or, municipalities sense the fear and decide to be proactive (the term “moral panic” appears in the literature and has been around since the early 1970s). The easy thing is for policy makers to establish a new rule and/or put up a sign. Politicians feel they have responded to their constituencies and parents feel their offspring are better off.  It is not unlike the question of liability (a topic I address in my November posting), where consumers and practitioners succumb to fear but very few people are willing to say there is minimal danger of being sued (or being abducted).


The consequences-, which might at first appear benign-, are actually significant for public space. We have limited financial resources.  Wouldn’t it be cost efficient if more people used each venue? That is especially true in the morning when playgrounds are usually sparsely attended. The youngsters who are there tend to be pre-school age and arrive with vigilant caregivers. Even in the middle of the day or later, older people and younger folks benefit from being near and crossing paths with each other.   New York City park rule, which allows for “senior citizen areas” for those over 65 years old, “for their quiet enjoyment and safety” indicates that seniors need protection when, in fact, research shows that they need to be less isolated and to interact with younger people.


If we realize the absurdity of keeping out adults, then we have to see the ludicrous nature of high fencing which turns a playground into a caged arena.  Do we want to send children a message that the playground is a place that induces anxiety? We, or course, have to protect the youngest children from running into the street.  Dense planting can accomplish that task, thereby allowing the playground to sit more seamlessly into a park or urban lot. We also need to think about our priorities.  Historian Paula Fass, summarized this well in her 1997 book Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America: “As a society, we seem to be alarmed for our children and our neighbors’ children only when the danger is of the most extreme kind” while we fail to worry sufficiently about things like inadequate medical care or inferior schools that impact children in a more routine way.  We could say, analogously, that if we focus only on keeping out strangers then we might not notice that the equipment might be uninteresting or that the entire environment could be a boring place in which to spend time. In a more positive vein, we may have lost sight of how the playground could be more welcoming and vital to a variety of individuals.


If we see the playground as a potentially vibrant public space, then we have to rethink what it looks like and who goes there.  If playgrounds are no longer isolated islands that keep kids inside and keep non-caregiver adults out, then they can begin to function as community hubs and become a resource that could enable neighborhoods to flourish.

3 Responses to “How Strange are our Dangers? How Dangerous are Strangers?”

  1. bob Meihaus said:

    One other factor to consider, on how fear influences the design of public play spaces, would be the call for a ” Clear Line of Sight”. The notion that a caregiver or parent should be able to observe their children’s activities at all times presumable from one location. A ridicules Guideline that does nothing but put unnecessary limits on creative or imaginative design solutions and further promotes the perception of a dangerous environment. A guideline more to justify the use of a lot of metal railings on most manufactured equipment than a true safety concern.

    January 19, 2015 at 10:14 am

  2. Kate said:

    Playgrounds in New Zealand don’t tend to be off limits to anyone, and are often unfenced. The biggest gripe I hear of, from time to time, is people (usually older men) coming along and photographing individual children at the playground. It is not illegal to do this in NZ – anyone can photograph anyone in a public place – but is understandably disturbing. When challenged, the photographers tend to leave.

    January 17, 2015 at 12:40 pm

  3. Tim Gill said:

    Great piece Susan – and so well-referenced. I hope this gets shared far and wide. By the way, adults without children can now visit the Diana Playground for the first 1/2 hour every day. They can visit London’s most recent flagship play space, Tumbling Bay in the Olympic Park, any time they want. What’s more, it’s completely unfenced. (Full disclosure: I worked on this scheme).

    January 16, 2015 at 4:55 am

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