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Guest Column - October 2003

High-Performance Playground

By Lynn Pinoniemi


All 54 of the elementary schools in the Brevard County, Fla., school district have play structures, and while some are quite new, others are starting to show their age under the intense glare of the Florida sun. To most observers, these playgrounds appear to suit the needs of the children quite well. During recess they are full of laughing, screaming kids who appear to be doing a good job of blowing off excess energy.

PLAYGROUND DESIGN COURTESY OF LANDSCAPE STRUCTURES INC. AND FLORIDA-BASED REP SERVICES, INC.

But as Valerie Harville visited these schools and watched kids play, she began to see things differently. As the curriculum coordinator for the school district's Health and Physical Education departments, her view of school playgrounds is filtered through a keen awareness of the needs of healthy, growing children. What she saw were many playgrounds that seemed to be chronic underachievers.

"Many of the playgrounds were colorful and eye-catching, but they seemed to put a lot of kids of different ages together in a small area," Harville says. "Moreover, they seemed to rely on play events that were more about style than substance. I saw a lot of kids socializing on these play structures, but very few were being challenged in ways that would build their upper-body strength, balance or coordination. I began to think that playground designs should focus more on the best interests of the kids from a developmental standpoint."

Harville voiced her concerns to Richard Smith, head of the district's safety initiatives, and Art Johnson, director of project management. After several meetings, they decided to let Harville test her theory on a playground that would be built at the new Manatee Elementary School in Viera, Fla.

"We wanted to develop a prototype playground that could be duplicated elsewhere," Johnson says.

Harville immediately began setting playground goals for Manatee Elementary, hoping that, if successful, the same goals would be used to guide equipment selection and playground design at all other elementary schools in the district.

Her first goal was safety. The Manatee playground would have separate age-appropriate areas that are clearly marked with signage. Second, this playground would be made accessible to children with special needs of all types—ambulatory, visual or auditory. Third, it would be a high-performance playground that would encourage kids to move from one event to another and to use and develop different muscle groups and improve their coordination, balance and self-confidence. Lastly, Manatee would have a customized playground supervision program, where monitors are trained how to supervise the play area and what to be alert for in terms of safety and maintenance hazards.

"The problem with many school playgrounds is that often times the people who are given responsibility for selecting the equipment and play events do not have any in-depth knowledge about child growth and development, playground safety or accessibility," she says. "They end up making decisions based on what looks fun, colorful and exciting, not on what will challenge kids and motivate them to develop physically and socially. A better approach would be to give playground design responsibility to the people in the school or school district who are trained to manage the health and safety of the children attending the school."

According to Principal Carl Brown, there was an important difference in approach with the new playground at Manatee Elementary.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF LANDSCAPE STRUCTURES INC.

"We tried to design this playground by focusing on events that would build hand-eye coordination and develop the upper body without the kids realizing it," Brown says. "In other words, we tried to make it both fun and functional."

Harville would be the first to say that she was not a playground expert when she began work on the project.

"My educational background is in physical education and administration, and I was comfortable in those areas," she says. "But I needed to find out more about playgrounds, so I did a lot of homework. I began by asking my peers on the Council of District Administrators about their playground experiences. I wanted to know everything: what playground products they had installed, the type of service they had received and the integrity of the companies that manufactured them. I also asked them how they made decisions, who was involved and what criteria were used. I already knew that I did not want to just go with the low bidder because I don't believe you should go cheap on a playground. I prefer well-made equipment when you are talking about masses of children using it."

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