Feature Article - September 2004
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Go Play

Making playgrounds appealing, safe and challenging enough to keep kids interested

By Elisa Kronish

If you're over 30, you probably remember your carefree childhood playground days spent on equipment like teeter-totters, sky-high metal slides, merry-go-rounds and soaring swings with hot asphalt under your swinging feet. You spent hours out there, getting dirty, laughing, chasing, running, maybe getting a few bruises and scrapes. But it was all in the name of good wholesome fun, right?

Not only are those quaint wooden teeter-totters often deemed unsafe these days, but now kids spend countless hours playing inside—in front of the TV, video games and computer. Times have changed, and it's essential to keep up. Just because kids have more choices when it comes to types and places of play, doesn't mean that playgrounds are obsolete. It just means that those who are involved with the funding, creation and management of playgrounds need to take play, well, seriously.

Why play matters

With childhood obesity rates what they are—as high as 25 percent in children under 15—it's essential that kids learn to consider outdoor activity an important option among many sedentary options.

"We've made it exciting for them to be inside—now we need to make it exciting again for them to be outside," says Steve King, president of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association. "We've got to get kids away from the TV and video and get them outside," King says, stressing that if obesity isn't nipped in the bud, it will likely follow those children right into adulthood.

And it's not just kids' bodies that are affected by exercise, but their minds as well. Recently, the Department of Education in Georgia decided to nix recess time as a waste of time.

"Two years later, they realized that kids got better grades if they're allowed to play and burn off stress," says King, who also is the owner of a playground-equipment manufacturer.

"The more stimulated they are in the outdoor environment, the more they will be in other situations too, when they go back to math class or history or whatever it is," says Dianne Noth, senior director of operations for the National Center for Boundless Playgrounds, a nonprofit inclusive play advocate organization based in Bloomfield, Conn. "Play is just as important as class time when they're trying to build their life. Play matters."

Just as individual kids benefit from having a playground in their community or school, communities as a whole benefit as well. In an underprivileged area of Grand Rapids, Mich., a new playground demonstrated that the city was committed to making improvements.

"Master planning showed that this area was one of the most needy in terms of crime; in fact, the park is named after a fallen officer," explains Jay Steffen, Grand Rapids park and recreation department director. "We provided opportunities for organizations to come together and make a statement that people did care about the area."

With a nudge from the city, the residents of a neglected area start to care more too, Steffen says.

"Our hope is that in addition to providing green space, we create a catalyst for other projects that improve the area," he says. "I think you'll see a marked change there in the next three to five years."