By the time a child is 12, maybe 13, there becomes a social standard of what’s acceptable in terms of emotional maturity. They are expected to be mini adults, we expect maturity, and responsibility, all without them being able to act like adults. It’s a weird balance, those teen years.
For teens with socio-economic struggles, this whole in-between period can be especially difficult. Family struggles – toxic parenting, unresolved divorces, addictions, violence, poverty – can send a teenager out into the world seeking a safe space to hang out. But where are those safe spaces these days? Beyond the restrictions of Covid, a lot of community centres struggle with funding and after-school activities are on the decline. They are typically ‘unwanted’ at places like malls, or food courts, unless they are actively shopping. If we stop and consider how little there is for teenagers to do, outside of an actual structured activity like sports, there are few places that a teenager feels welcomed to just hang out.
What if we changed that?
What if we had safe spaces in all cities and towns, for teens to come together to hang out with their friends?
What if those places already existed?
What if we called them playgrounds?
Gasp! I know! What a concept. But hear me out. We all know the stereotype of a bored teenager, doing destructive things, in inappropriate places. All of that. Yes. That happens. But what if the destruction comes from the boredom because they literally have no where fun or cool to go that doesn’t cost them a fortune or doesn’t kick them out? When we think about where teenagers are, they are almost always someplace where nobody really wants them to be. That is quite sad, and also a mindset that we see often in playground development.
Deciding who has a ‘right’ to access playgrounds is subjective. Is it the city? Is it the developer? Is it the neighbourhood parents? You would think that a child the age of 12 or 13 would have every right to be at the playground too, so why not a 14- or 15-year-old? Plenty of children that age just want to have fun, in an honest way, with their friends.
Middle school children (yes, teens are in middle school!) like a challenge. They like to climb high, they like to run fast. They love to stay active through play. It may just different, but it’s not a bad thing. The playground invasion of the teenagers may sound ominous for some parents but the concept of a teenager at a playground should not be one to frown upon. Especially if we build the playgrounds with them in mind.
Now, we can set some social guidelines. We can treat them like any other person at the playground. Are they being loud? Great, that’s what a playground is for. Are they swearing? That’s not good, ask them to please stop while there’s younger children around.
A well-designed playground can encourage all ages, and stages of development. With teenagers in mind:
When it comes to outdoor recreation, our efforts for children really dry up after age 12. All funds related to teens or youth are channeled into alcohol prevention, teen-pregnancy prevention, drug prevention, and antisocial behavior. What if continued outdoor play could also reduce those risks? What if we weren’t constantly shoo’ing teens away from play?