Friday, December 10, 2010

Special Needs Students Benefit from "Sensory Playgrounds"

Bourgeoning playground designs focused on sensory activities offer social interaction as well as therapeutic learning time. While all children benefit from stimulating play, research shows that those with special needs progress considerably when such play environments are integrated with their school routine.

Common playground activities such as swings and trampolines inherently encourage socializing, concentration skills and physical awareness, which the steadily increasing number of children with autism and other attention-deficit conditions lack. However, parents, caregivers and educators of special needs children should note the recent advent of KidSense "sensory playgrounds," as the industry lexicon now describes them.

LeAnne Cantrell, an oil drilling engineer turned sensory playground pioneer, has established the KidSense Pilot Yard on the shared campus of Pontchartrain Elementary and Tcherfuncte Middle schools in Mandeville, La. where her autistic son is a student.

Cantrell recognized the importance of outdoor play in developing learning and social skills. She also saw in her New Orleans-adjacent community the absence of playground equipment and layout schemes that properly accommodate youngsters with special needs, most notably those whose wheelchairs often restrict their access to traditional play facilities and school yards.

So with the help and input of many friends and neighbors -- and despite Hurricane Katrina -- KidSense came to be with the intention of creating places where children with special needs can inclusively interact with parents and peers.

The Pilot Yard at Pontchartrain Elementary builds on previous accessible playground concepts such as the nearby Boundless Playground design covered in a previous posting. It consists of 12 areas based on three types of "sensory stations." "Equipment stations," according to the KidSense website, "offer very specific types of either hard work or sets of movement that are needed to fulfill students’ sensory diets." "Natural stations" such as a thicket of crepe myrtle trees are intended to "soothe and calm while introducing opportunities for imagination."

The playground also has a "multi-sensory wall" that expands the traditional mural concept "with the use of tiles, mirrors, castings and even manipulative [activities] such as wheels to turn, cranks, pulleys and levers," explains. "Braille messages written in stones can be decoded with the help of a friend or the permanent Braille alphabet key."

Innovative playground attractions include a climbing wall, balance beam, tunnels and buddy slides. Each piece of equipment is accompanied by different types of plants and trees. These natural surroundings provide "a sense of protection...and offer alternative place experiences," states the KidSense website.

KidSense yards are based on "sensory rooms," which are common in special education schools. These play areas provide students with activities that sharpen concentration and lengthen attention spans.

Cantrell's concept draws heavily from research that began in the 1970s with Jane Ayers' "sensory integration" techniques. Only recently has the medical research community caught up, however.

It wasn't until 2005 that Temple University researchers turned heads with the first of two large-scale sensory integration studies. It found 95 percent of kids with ADHD improved their ability to focus on schoolwork and interact with family members.

A second survey completed in May reported that 91 percent of autistic children "displayed fewer stereotypical behaviors after participating in sensory integration schedules and were better able to concentrate on achieving set goals," according to The Times-Picayune newspaper.

Currently, KidSense is fundraising for its third sensory playground project since the non-profit began in 2007. As quoted in her local newspaper, the St. Tammany News, Cantrell said, “We are building a better playground for all children, not just those with special needs.” 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Special Needs Playgrounds Gaining Ground

As playgrounds grow and evolve with increasing attention paid to safety and equipment durability, it's important to note that kids with physical limitations need adequate places to play just as much, if not more, than kids without disabilities.

Children who must contend with limited mobility and dexterity need much more carefully designed equipment and facilities. In recent years, awareness of making parts of everyday life more "handicapped accessible" is now commonplace in many areas of everyday life.

And in the wake of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, through which Congress made accessible public facilities the law of the land, focus on accessible playgrounds has naturally followed suit. Creating recreational facilities accessible to all, however still remains an uphill battle in many instances.

Parents of children with disabilities often have to go out of their way to make local accessible playgrounds a reality. The St. Tammany Kids Konnection Boundless Playground in New Orleans is a good example of this.

Initially several parents of disabled kids were dismayed when their school's new playground, completed in 2004, proved inaccessible for wheelchairs. As word spread through the community and parents commiserated, attention soon turned toward establishing a non-school playground where all children can play together.

St. Tammany Parish and nearby communities rallied around the initiative and eventually raised nearly $400,000, well over the average $200,000 it takes to build a special-needs playground. Despite the devastation to the area wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the new facility where kids with disabilities can play with friends and siblings opened a year later.

Accessible designs are more costly, an obvious obstacle toward realizing places like the St. Tammany playground. Things did work out very well in the end -- the facility has a wall for climbing, vine-covered arbor, maze, sensory garden with sound-play instruments, chalk painting, tunnels and a sweetly scented flower patch.

This success story keenly illustrates what it takes to build an accessible playground from scratch. Susan McHugh, who was instrumental in the project from start to finish, sums it up best:

"We can’t sit back and expect someone to do what we need done for our children,” she said as quoted in an article on, which provides information for people with disabilities. "You can’t just assume that your school, or your city or state government is going to do what you need done. It goes beyond that -- it has to come from our passion for doing what is best for our children. Don’t sit back and wait for someone else to do it.”

Boundless Playgrounds, which designed the St. Tammany Parish Kids Konnection, describes itself as "the leading national nonprofit developer of nearly 200 truly inclusive playgrounds in 31 states and Canada."

The key element in a Boundless Playground, as the name indicates, is completely free mobility for all. This is mainly accomplished by ramp-accessible paths that enable handicapped adults to experience play time with kids of all abilities. Building social connections through play is also a core principle that drives the Boundless Playground mission.

The general layout of a Boundless facility incorporates four areas that encourage developmental behaviors. One sector "supports repetitive/looping and gathering/branching out behaviors of children in earlier developmental stages, according to the organization's website, while other areas encourage gathering, planning and social interaction.

The fourth "General Area" is for all children, disabled or not, and most thoroughly puts into praxis Boundless Playgrounds' mission: "To build truly inclusive playgrounds where children -- and adults -- of all abilities can play and learn together in a fun and welcoming environment."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Playground Security Goes High-Tech with Sound Barriers, Motion Detectors, Infrared Video

While playgrounds provide good times and an ideal place for exercise, they're also magnets for senseless vandalism and after-hours loitering. Destruction or theft of playground equipment is an enduring problem for any community, costing property owners and municipalities millions every year.

Social decline factors aside, this is mainly due to the very public, easily accessible locations that recreational facilities occupy. Standard security measures such as fencing and lighting can only go so far in deterring those bent on doing damage. And because all it really takes are some tools and misguided motivation, playground crimes often prove relatively easy to perpetrate and difficult for police to solve, let alone deter.

In response, the technology and strategy behind playground security has really come a long way. An elaborate, though quite pricy new system illuminates, photographs and even bombards would-be vandals or after-hours loiterers with an ultrasonic "sound barrier."

MiracleTech Security, a division of Missouri-based Miracle Recreation Equipment Co., stands out as the pioneer playground security system. It's the first system designed exclusively for playgrounds, adapting common modern security technologies to the unique needs of a playground setting.

MiracleTech's patented technology that debuted at the 2009 National Recreation Park Association annual conference in Salt Lake City features an infrared digital video camera, low-voltage lighting and last but definitely not least, the sound barrier.

SonicScreen is tied to a motion detector and emits an "ultrasonic tone that's unpleasant to teenagers," explains the MiracleTech product brochure. It works like a dog training device that discourages excessive barking with a finely tuned alarm that only dogs can hear.

The company claims "SonicScreen does not affect children under 12 or pets" and "can also be configured to a lower frequency where loitering by older age groups is a problem." Its stock setting affects people age 13 to 25.

MiracleTech provides individual components or an integrated system that incorporates all three into one unit. ParkWatch video monitoring and SiteBrite integrated lighting fixtures round out the product package, which is flexible and easily tailored to specific facilities and equipment.

The lights, cameras and sound barrier devices mount on playground equipment posts and piping. MiracleTech can fit any new or existing playground structure.

The system can be mounted on a new or existing playground structure. The MiracleTech system can also be post mounted to as a retrofit to any recreation facility that has vandalism issues.

With regard to its impressive camera that can shoot at night, the company's website notes that "high video quality and a large storage capacity let ParkWatch play a critical role in suspect identification, helping deter child predation and other crimes."

Competitor playground security systems very likely will follow MiracleTech's innovative lead. It will be interesting to see how the technology evolves to fill the never-ceasing demand for safer, cleaner and well maintained schoolyards and parks.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Playground Crime Common, Mostly Untracked

It's amazingly unfortunate how far some people will go to do damage to a playground. Police blotters in communities all over the world, affluent and underprivileged alike, tell the tale.

Countless horror stories fill the record with news blurbs that frame playgrounds as crime scenes, such as this Aug. 2 report by WOKV television in Jacksonville, Fla. in which a 20-year-old man was found with a "life-threatening" gunshot wound and "the playground was closed off with crime scene tape as investigators searched for clues."

In line with the absence of solid, enforceable playground design and equipment standards, crime statistics on schoolyards and public recreation facilities simply aren't kept by any level of government. So the research is scattered and purely anecdotal, except for a recent "experimental" attempt by the U.K.

The children's British Crime Survey published in June recorded more than 2 million incidents of theft and violence against kids between the age of 10 and 15. However the majority of incidents "were no more than playground pushing and shoving or family spats," the Guardian newspaper reported.

With no U.S. governmental attempts to assess playground crime, the vast record of press accounts offers a rather alarming picture. Parks and schools are the sites of just about every heinous offense, only white-collar crimes seem to be absent from the long list topped by murder, rape, assault and arson. Drugs and theft are also commonplace.

A common playground theft racket is exemplified by this New Jersey case. According to the Atlantic Highlands Herald, a Middletown Township police investigation found that a group of playground thieves would rent U-Hauls and travel throughout the area's neighboring counties stealing playground equipment. They would then sell it at garage sales and a local public auction.

And last but not least, there's always petty vandalism to consider. Without security measures such as at least a non-climbable fence and sufficient lighting, playgrounds are sitting ducks for aimless, usually nocturnal vandals. Vandalism ends up costing millions of dollars every year, requiring vigilant attempts at prevention.

An Ounce of Prevention

While the need for playground crime prevention apparently hasn't made a noticeable impact on most public officials and policymakers, some steps have been taken toward this end.

Kids-only playgrounds where no solo adults are allowed have increased nationwide. For the most part these are toothless legislative gestures that are rarely enforced, but at least the heart is in the right place.

The only viable long-term solution to preventing playground crime is a two-tiered approach that combines youth and community involvement in playground design with a greater emphasis on security systems tailored for recreational facilities.

“I think [community and youth involvement] leads to more creative designs," playground expert Kate Becker told PTO Today. "It leads to a playground that’s used more, and it leads to a place that’s going to be vandalized less.”

On the security system front, the dawn of systems made specifically for playground equipment is finally here. MiracleTech by Miracle Recreation Equipment Co. of Monnet, Mo. is the trailblazer, offering nighttime video surveillance, motion detected lighting and an ultra-sonic sound barrier that only affects teens and young adults.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Profiles in Fitness: Head Start Body Start

Within the last generation, youth physical fitness has gained significant ground in the political sphere. It's a given that promoting healthy living and physical activity is an important function of children's education.

But only until fairly recently, there wasn't much of a support structure in government or elsewhere to actually fund and implement effective policies.

So as childhood obesity rates steadily increase disproportionately in low-income communities, fueling demands for government action from the public and press, enter a big bowl of federal and non-governmental alphabet soup -- HHS, ACF, OHS, AAPAR, NASPE, and most notably, an eclectic organization with a name that's even too long for a complete acronym.

Head Start Body Start National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play, or HSBS in the interest of breath-saving, "aims to increase physical activity, outdoor play, and healthy eating among Head Start and Early Head Start children, families, and staff," according to the organization's mission statement.

Headed by Karin Spencer, Ed.D., education and health experts fill the agency's board and executive staff. There are also similarly qualified educators called master trainers, and also a large number of physical activity consultants.

Master trainers hold advanced degrees in physical education, motor development and early childhood physical activity. They develop training curricula and educational resources.

Physical activity consultants provide training and assistance at Head Start facilities. The HSBS website describes "a cadre of more than 240 physical activity experts with experience in early childhood education and movement as well as other related fields."

Head Start -- HSBS's mother ship that provides its four-year, $12 million grant -- is not at all new. The program dates back to President Johnson's anti-poverty push in the mid-1960s. After bouncing around the executive branch bureaucracy and several legislative overhauls over the decades, the current manifestation is the Office of Head Start within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families.

The official OHS line goes like this: "The Head Start program provides grants to local public and private non-profit and for-profit agencies to provide comprehensive child development services to economically disadvantaged children and families, with a special focus on helping preschoolers develop the early reading and math skills they need to be successful in school."

In 1995, "the Early Head Start program was established to serve children from birth to three years of age in recognition of the mounting evidence that the earliest years matter a great deal to children's growth and development," the agency's website reports. Until Head Start Body Start, most of the OHS's efforts concentrated on academics "with a special focus on helping preschoolers develop the early reading and math skills they need to be successful in school."

Medical researchers have firmly established the link between poverty and obesity, so the 1 million 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in Head Start represent a key demographic pool on which the government focuses physical fitness and healthy diet education.

A May 2010 article by Barbara Anderson, health reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, underscores the need to start them young on the path to obesity avoidance:

"The low-income 'are buying what's available to them and affordable to them,' said Genoveva Islas-Hooker, regional program coordinator for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program...Food habits begin in childhood, Islas-Hooker said. 'You grow up in a household where there is limited economic means and your caregiver is purchasing food on what they can afford...You become ingrained in that type of diet and that type of pattern.'"

As a real-life example of this, the story tells of a 30-year-old woman from Fresno, Calif. who is 100 pounds overweight with a combined family income of $900 a month. She comes from a large family that could mostly afford only starchy, relatively inexpensive foods -- "spaghetti, tacos, rice, beans, potatoes."

"'I'm used to cooking and eating the way I was raised, when I was small,' she said."

At its core HSBS has three objectives:

• Administer and support grants for construction of improvement of outdoor play spaces at Head Start Centers.

• Provide resources, training, and technical assistance to Head Start and Early Head Start grantees.

• Inform and assist OHS in setting national priorities and developing policies.

As far as actual HSBS goings-on, in October the agency debuted Take It Outside! Week. This annual affair only emphasizes and attract publicity for youth physical fitness, but also unify the growing number of Head Start centers around the country.

Take It Outside! Week is also a great way to spotlight the many exercise activities HSBS personnel has designed.

In the area of playground quality and safety, HSBS publishes an annual Preferred Provider List.

The 2010 list, which is actually more like a 61-page catalog of heavily vetted playground equipment and manufacturer profiles, was published in April. It consists of "31 playground and play space companies, equipment manufacturers, and other creators of playground and play space-related resources," according to a press release.

And keeping things political, the first HSBS Policy Guide is set for publication this summer. The agency's website says it will include:

• Policy recommendations based on research

• Expert knowledge and opinion

• Existing successful policies and sample model policies

If anything, Head Start Body Start is a vast resource for anyone interested in learning the ways of healthy, energetic living.

The website alone is quite an academic trove produced by highly qualified and experienced experts in the field of childhood health and education. It's new, so lots of interesting features, such as the Movement Activity Database, are still under construction.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Health Angle: More Quality Playgrounds, Less Childhood Obesity

The news these days is full of accounts based on alarming statistics regarding American kids' sinking levels of physical fitness and correspondingly skyrocketing obesity rates. The best are the CDC figures -- exponentially increasing numbers of kids are obese; annual health costs resulting from obesity total billions of dollars and shorter life expectancies.

"Childhood Obesity" is now a common form of medical speak for the at least pudgy, if not downright health-threatening condition that continues to scream for awareness from parents, educators and anyone who cares about young people.

One very notable person who fits that description is the First Lady. In April Michelle Obama debuted the "Let's Move" campaign to challenge poor diet and lack of exercise.

On the dietary front, the World Health Organization has taken aim at junk food. The United Nations' health advocate comprised of 193 member states points to the global gain in cases of childhood obesity and has called for restrictions in the marketing and advertising of foods high fat, sugar or salt.

Focus is finally now emphatically being placed on how the routines that dictate school and home life in many ways promote sloth and bad eating habits. U.S. News and World Report points to a good example in Missouri of an encouraging start toward reducing desk time and undue weight gain.

It's called the Active and Healthy Schools Program, in which an elementary school incorporates short breaks throughout the day to emphasize movement.

In addition to activity breaks, students and faculty wear pedometers to fuel competition among students and teachers and increase the number of their steps," the magazine reports. "Activity zones are placed throughout playgrounds to engage students in different activities, including hula-hoop, jump-rope and games. Signs and pictures with healthy messages about nutrition and activity are displayed in classrooms and throughout the school."

Playgrounds are the key, as the operative word from the above quote indicates. There's definitely no better place for "activity zones."

If it seems like a no-brainer, well, it is. Access and more importantly, the desire to go to appealing recreation facilities are what's needed if kids are going to learn and make active, physically fit lifestyles their reality.

Despite the apparent obviousness of it all, science has reams of research confirming how important play facilities are in minimizing childhood obesity. A 2007 inquiry by the RAND Corporation -- "Weekend Schoolyard Accessibility, Physical Activity, and Obesity: The Trial of Activity in Adolescent Girls (TAAG) Study" -- is one of many on this subject.

"Girls who lived near locked schools tended to be heavier, and neighborhoods with locked schools were disproportionately poor and had larger minority populations," Molly M. Scott, the study's lead author, told Medical News Today. "These neighborhoods, where risk of obesity is high and public parks and playgrounds are often lacking, could benefit from convenient and safe places for physical activity. And making schools accessible doesn't require construction. It's a policy change."

Accessible, well designed playgrounds everywhere would definitely be nice. It's crucial to make these places as familiar and safe as possible for kids. Otherwise they won't form the all-important intellectual as well as emotional connections that are key to establishing behavior patterns.

Health strategist and educator Carol Torgan, Ph.D., provides a useful statistical review of major academic studies that have been done on the impact physical activity has on obesity numbers:

"For U.S. children ages 10-17, 35.0% have no access to recreation or community centers; 26.7% have no neighborhood access to sidewalks or walking paths; and 19.2% have no access to parks or playgrounds...

"Children living in neighborhoods with no access to sidewalks or walking paths, parks or playgrounds, and recreation or community centers, have 32%, 26% and 20% higher adjusted odds of obesity than children in neighborhoods with access to these amenities, respectively."

The facts are as clear as can be. Without greater emphasis on open space and quality playgrounds, kids are going to keep getting fatter at pandemic proportions.

Kids with the opportunity to live healthy lives fueled by good food and lots of chances to exercise without question are far more likely to excel in their studies and develop well socially.

It's time to stop reading academic tealeaves and start taking action toward better recreation facilities that will draw children away from the video game console, TV show filler and junk food.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fundraising: Thoughts, Tips Toward Funding Better Playgrounds

Because good playgrounds are costly, those interested in building new or improving existing locations should take note of successful fundraising techniques.

As the recession crimps municipal and non-profit budgets, times like these call for privately organized fundraising committees to lead the way toward playground improvement and development.

Despite the economic downturn, there are still significant government grants available to make playgrounds newer, better and safer. In addition to the feds and states, corporations and private foundations are a great source of grant funding for community development projects.

In the last two decades, the Fortune 500 has stepped up significantly. Companies such as Nike, Home Depot and many others have contributed hundreds of millions of tax-deductible dollars and product donations to many youth-oriented causes.

This is because in addition to community development and recreation grants, the educational and physical activity aspects of playgrounds open the door for a variety of funding opportunities. Sporting goods companies, as well as government agencies and private foundations that focus on health, education or helping young people all have a relevant stake in funding playgrounds.

Fundraising events in which donations are collected are another effective way to not only collect cash but also make people aware of a playground project. Public support is crucial to winning grants, so fundraising events provide a great opportunity for publicity and community outreach.

There are professional firms specifically dedicated to organizing playground fundraising campaigns. While everyone has their own perspectives and approaches -- and there sure are a lot of points of view on this -- here is an attempt to cut through the din and outline proven fundraising basics in five clear steps:

1. Project Plan

Be sure to have all design details and most importantly, budgeting, finalized before fundraising enters the picture. Plan promotional efforts, make lists of likely donors, start spreading the word. There are numerous resources available to help, including professional services that specifically specialize in setting up fundraising drives for public facilities like playgrounds.

2. Fundraising Plan

Clearly specify the various methods of generating, collecting, and safeguarding funds raised. The more detailed and thought out this is, the more likely success will follow.

3. Fundraising Pros

Write down as part of the Project Plan the positive things this money will accomplish and any other positives that come to mind.

4. Fundraising Cons

Make another list, this one of potential hazards and obstacles the fundraising project may encounter. It's always best to attempt to prepare for the worst, and this is also a great way of really hashing out the project's fine details. Improvements usually follow this stage, which segues to the final stage -- and now, Step no. 5, the legwork.

5. Follow-up

Be persistent! The more effort put into organizing fundraising events and campaigns, simple physics and the law of averages holds that it will equate to more money for better playgrounds. Word-of-mouth is key at this point, and media or Internet presence never hurts, either.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Quick Primer on American Playground History

Since colonial times parks have been a staple feature of American cities, following European urban planning traditions. But it wasn't until the early-20th century that playgrounds, and America's urban landscape in general, began to shift into what's recognizable to present-day city dwellers.

As eastern cities teemed with immigrants and a surging youth population, the need for designated public play spaces became more and more apparent. Private philanthropic organizations such as the Outdoor Recreation League of New York City and the National Playground Association took the lead in establishing the first public recreation areas on public park land.

New York City parks were the first to incorporate the first generation of modern playground equipment, with Seward Park in 1903 accounting for the first American playground built by a city government. The Manhattan park's design, complete with slides, seesaws and other now familiar amenities, serves as a flagship model for today's urban recreation areas.

President Theodore Roosevelt's advocacy for the nationwide establishment of playgrounds is cited as a major turning point toward establishing an enduring national commitment to public recreation areas. In a 1907 letter to Cuno J. Randolph of the Washington Playground Association, the president noted that children "must have places especially set aside for them; and, since play is a fundamental need, playgrounds should be provided for every child as much as schools. This means that they must be distributed over the cities in such a way as to be within walking distance of every boy and girl."

Roosevelt was responding to the popular movement proclaiming play as an essential activity for safe and healthy children. Today this guiding sentiment of the early playground movement is aptly reflected by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation: "As [playground] designs have evolved one thing has remained constant -- the essential role that the playgrounds play in the vitality of urban neighborhoods, and in particular the physical development and socialization of the city's children."

After a bit of a post-World War I lull in playground innovation and evolution, the second generation of playgrounds came about in the 1920s and '30s. The number of playgrounds in the United States skyrocketed during the Great Depression. "These playgrounds were the classic swings/slides/see-saws/sandbox playgrounds that were built on asphalt with little or no shade," wrote playground expert Nic Breedlove. "They were quite sturdy, but not very safe."

Reminiscing in the Spring Valley (Minn.) Tribune, a local self-described "little old lady" recalled the playground equipment of her childhood in the early-1940s. She happily remembers the swing and ring sets, teeter-totters, merry-go-rounds, "'the rod,' shaped like an upside-down U, from which we could hang or swing up onto, as well as the 'monkey bars.'"

In the '40s and '50s, the "Baby Boom" generation of youngsters hit the ground running with full force, inspiring the social and political call for even more playground development. The number of playgrounds during this period increased dramatically, as cities and suburbs grew very rapidly in the post-war years.

The 1960s brought about what became known as "adventure playgrounds," which Breedlove describes as featuring "rope ladders, pyramids, and many other types of climbing" structures plus thrilling but often high and dangerous swing sets, slides and merry-go-rounds based on earlier equipment designs. "These playgrounds were often designed by architects and they were very beautiful urban spaces. Unfortunately they lacked safety," Breedlove wrote.

Higher safety standards didn't start to kick in until the 1980s, and it wasn't until the '90s that manufacturers and playground administrators really put major focus on safe equipment and playground designs.

As quoted by USA Today, Plymouth, Minn. Superintendent of Parks Mark Peterson lamented, "It's all gone by the wayside. Unfortunately, from a thrill factor, the big tall swings are gone, the big tall slides are gone."

"The big steel swing set, long a staple for kids in search of high-flying thrills or leisurely daydreams with best friends, is disappearing from the American playground," according to the newspaper. "Along with other types of equipment, such as stratospheric slides and Batman-type sliding poles, tall swing sets are being replaced by safer and more cost-effective, less-thrilling modern alternatives."

Currently fixed equipment is fast becoming a thing of the past. Breedlove observed that new facilities offer "structures like banked boardwalks around the outer perimeter for kids to run on, water features, and equipment that encourages open-ended play," such as "enormous rubber balls, ships' masts, pulleys, artificial streams and water structures with locks and material to create temporary diversions and dams."

As this blog has recently covered, safe surfacing is another recent innovation in the quest for safer playgrounds. Although such impact-absorbing rubber surface materials can be costly compared to the gravel, asphalt or hard compacted earth of the past, safe surfaces beneath swings and climbing structures do significantly reduce the risk of serious injury and have become an increasingly common playground fixture.

It's possible that with more attention placed on proper supervision and safe surfacing, the thrill-factor that seems to be on the wane in the latest playground equipment could make a resurgence. This would appease those in the playground management industry who see the lack of exciting structures as discouraging young people's connection with outdoor play.

One industry insider complained in USA Today that "we have dumbed down and sanitized our playgrounds -- especially public playgrounds -- to a point where they don't hold [kids'] interest as long."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Only Equipment Built for Heavy Use Lasts -- Short-Term Savings = Long-Term Replacement Costs and Safety Concerns

Durable equipment is the most important thing to consider when designing and putting together a playground, whether it’s for a backyard or a large municipal park. Lesser quality slides, swing sets and any other contraptions tempt with lower costs, but why risk the safety risks and very possible mechanical breakdowns that are all too common?

Here are some recommendations for properly designed playground structures that will last and prove to be a wise long-term investment:

Residential: Small wooden structures

Day Care: Small structures made entirely of plastic

Churches or Small Schools: 3.5-inch extruded steel posts, lighter gauge side panels, or more substantial wooden structures

Public Use - Small Towns: Smaller size play units using 5-inch extruded steel posts, or more substantial sized play units using 3.5-inch extruded steel posts

Public Use - Urban Areas: 5-inch extruded steel post, or 5-inch pipe, heavier gauge side panels

Since heavy use will really put playground equipment to the test, municipalities especially should heavily consider structures that have some kind of defense against wear-and-tear and vandalism.

Header boards and handles are key indicators of a structure’s durability and overall quality. Cheaper, less resilient models often will have handles that can be easily removed with a Phillips screwdriver or socket wrench. Flimsy header boards that can be kicked out easily are another tell-tale sign to take into account.

Tamper-resistant components and hardware undoubtedly yield longer equipment life. Plastic components need to be thick enough and positioned in such a way as to resist vandalism, the elements and warping. Steel pipes need to be thick enough and have enough paint layers to withstand weathering and normal, but steady, wear and tear.

Wear and tear occurs by the amount of children playing on the unit, which is most directly indicated by visible wearing of painted areas. Moving pieces, plastic games, pretty much all components continually withstand hundreds of children wearing them down. This is why well made equipment of the proper use grade is essential.

Larger, more heavily used playgrounds such as a city park should also consider the area’s demographics. If a particular park is frequented by lots of teenagers, for example, extra-sturdy equipment becomes especially necessary.

Playground structures are intended for use by smaller-sized children compared to taller and heavier teens, who generally should not be on the equipment. Given the naturally rebellious nature of being at that age, though, teenagers are the most likely age group with the potential for vandalism.

Those deciding on equipment should always bear in mind their facility’s demographics and its observable history of playground use to fully account for the kind of heavy use or possible damage that may occur.

Weather must also be considered. If the play unit is located on the beach or on sand, nature’s favorite abrasive element will wear surfaces and affect hardware. Heavy rainfall or snow, of course, deems rust protection.

Here’s a few quick-reference tips geared toward municipal playgrounds that will help resist vandalism, damage or warping from weather elements and heavy use:

Tamper resistant screws

Thicker gauge metal and plastic pieces

Increased number of paint coats on equipment

Secure placement of steel posts to ensure stable platforms, panels, stairs and slides

Fencing and lighting, and closing the park after dark

Adequate supervision