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Feature Article - July/August 2005

‘Tween a Rock and a Play Place

New playground designs and equipment appeal to that finicky older kid crowd

By Margaret Ahrweiler


Since before today's children were born, we've monitored their safety and development like no other generation—from ultrasounds and Mozart sonatas in utero to the most protective car seats and bicycle helmets. Parents' groups and professional organizations have worked tirelessly to ensure that their play equipment stimulates them and encourages both physical and social skills with the lowest risk possible.

What do we get for our efforts? No thanks indeed. By the time kids hit their "tweens"—8 to 12—many have become utterly blasé about the outdoor play experience. Other interests beckon: team sports, video games, organized youth groups, television. And yet the importance of outdoor play looms large as health and fitness groups sound alarm after alarm about overweight, inactive children.

In response, recreational facility planners, child-development pros and playground manufacturers are taking a closer look at what these fickle older children want and developing park plans and equipment that helps these kids act like kids just a few years longer. They're watching how older kids play and socialize, asking them what they like, and creating systems that give them the challenges they need.

Watch a busy playground, and you're bound to notice the older children in groups, turning everything possible into a competition, dominating monkey-bar equipment and trying to push equipment to its limits, notes Dr. Donna Thompson, director of the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) and professor of physical education at University of Northern Iowa. They play very differently than their younger counterparts.

THE FAB FOUR

Thompson says four key factors matter most to older kids: competition, social interaction, upper-body-centered physical activity and emphasis on challenge.

"They like to play together in teams and groups a whole lot more than younger children, and they want a challenge," she says.

Equipment designers can increase the challenge without increasing the risk if they think creatively, she says. For example, she asked a manufacturer to stretch the ladder portion of a monkey-bars element from six to 20 feet long. Completing a 20-foot row of monkey bars definitely provides a challenge, even for the most athletic kids. Similarly, a six-foot-long balance beam can be doubled in length, mounted on an incline or angled back and forth.

Raising that balance beam four feet off the ground, on the other hand, will not increase the challenge, as any gymnastics coach can tell you; it simply increases the fall height.