Playgrounds don’t look like they used to. Steep metal slides and wooden towers have given way to slow, plastic slides and carefully penned-in climbing contraptions. And forget about seesaws – they’re a thing of the past.

When kids are bored by unimaginative (read: safe) playground equipment, they’re less active as a result, and with childhood obesity at epidemic proportions, that's a danger, too.

According to the study, the new, safer equipment often became boring because children mastered it so quickly.

An interesting new investigation looks into this phenomenon. Researchers visited 34 daycare locations in suburbs and cities, including Head Starts, Montessori schools, YMCAs, and facilities at universities, corporations, and churches. Workers and parents were questioned about what they thought the main barriers to children’s activity were. Injury concerns, financial constraints, and a wish to put academics first were among the chief reasons cited by parents and daycare employees for not encouraging more active play.

According to the study, the new, safer equipment often became boring because children mastered it so quickly. To make it more challenging, kids tended to improvise, walking up the slide the wrong way, or using supports as a climbing apparatus. Sometimes younger children were drawn to the older kids’ equipment, presumably because it presented a more interesting set of challenges.

Lead author Kristen Copeland, a researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, commented that some participants said that overly strict safety standards made much of the climbing equipment uninteresting, thus reducing children’s physical activity.

Copeland suggests that parents may want to think about other options, rather than relying solely on playgrounds to keep their kids active and engaged. “There are plenty of things centers can do to encourage physical activity that cost little to no money,” she says, “such as putting on a dance CD, taking nature walks, running races on the playground, or learning how to skip.”

The take-home message, though, is that playgrounds are presenting a bit of a Catch-22 these days. Safety guidelines, which are admittedly important, can defeat the very purpose of the playground: rather than promoting physical activity, they are dampening it.

“An important message from this study is that well-intentioned policies may have unintended consequences for preschool-aged children's physical development,” said Copeland. “Daily physical activity is essential for preschool-aged children's development and for preventing obesity... In essence, in ensuring that young children are smart and safe, we may also be keeping them sedentary.”

Hopefully playground designers will be able to bridge the gap between safety and fun, particularly, as the authors say, since “childhood obesity is quickly eclipsing childhood injury as a leading cause of morbidity.” In an age when video games and computer time are a way of life, opportunities for physical activity need to be cultivated, from the ground up.

The study was published in Pediatrics.