Feature Article - July 2007
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Pump Up the Fun

What’s new on the playground?

By Stacy St. Clair

There's no ignoring childhood obesity.

It's a national epidemic that threatens our children's health and, if left unaddressed, will heavily tax North American health care systems in the future. It's an enemy so persistent and prevalent, roughly one in every six children between the ages of 6 and 11 are considered dangerously overweight.

It seems that everyone has declared war on childhood obesity. Presidential candidates vow to eradicate it if elected. Talk show hosts try to mobilize stay-at-home moms. Medical experts have made a call to arms.

While these groups all play important roles, they are not on the front lines of the battle. That arduous assignment belongs in part to recreation, sports and fitness facility managers. They're the ones charged with creating the engaging programs and purchasing the attractive equipment that will get kids moving.

"Instead of blaming children for being overweight, we need to encourage them and help them to make healthier choices," acting U.S. Surgeon General Kenneth P. Moritsugu said. "I want to encourage everyone who has the ability to teach our nation's children about healthy eating and physical activity."

With this charge in mind, forward-thinking recreation facility managers have made playgrounds ground zero in this winnable war against childhood obesity. They offer children opportunities for physical activity on a daily basis, giving them a free place to run, jump and build muscle.

"The new national studies show that kids are now getting a majority of their exercise on the playground and not through other recreational activities, said Doug Kupper, director of the Parks and Recreation Department for Wichita, Kan.

The city has answered those studies by going on the offensive with a completely new playground system. The equipment promotes unscripted play and provides continuous challenges—things that keep the kids playing longer and faster.

Meanwhile in Chattanooga, Tenn., the parks and recreation department is attacking the problem with a sleek, modern playground system that gets kids moving. The equipment—which was installed at two local recreation centers—goes beyond the traditional slides and swings. With a mixture of features such as climbers, circuit walls and rings, children are encouraged to stretch, build upper-body strength and fuel their competitive spirit.

"We wanted more than a playground," said Rick O'Rear, the department's director of fitness and wellness. "We wanted to appeal to more age groups and give them exercise benefits. That's the key. They're playing, and they don't realize they're exercising because it's fun."