Feature Article - July 2007
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Pump Up the Fun

What’s new on the playground?

By Stacy St. Clair

A growing problem

As recreation facility managers continue to fight their valiant battle, it's important to realize just how serious childhood obesity is. Each year, more children are killed by obesity than gun violence, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General's office. And, for the first time in history, there's a chance that the new generations of Americans will live shorter and less healthy lives because of obesity's debilitating affects.

Nine million youths, or 15 percent of the nation's children and adolescents, are considered obese today. That figure has tripled since 1980, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's office.

Obesity has contributed to an increase of asthma and type 2 diabetes among children. It also increases the likelihood that those overweight children will develop heart disease, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer as adults.

More than 70 percent of obese children grow up to be obese adults, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overeating also is predicted to overtake tobacco-related disease as the number one cause of preventable death in the United States.

Experts agree that obesity is the end result of an inversely proportional relationship between activity level and caloric intake. In other words, as activity levels go down and caloric intake goes up, the chances of obesity increase. Children who take in more calories than they burn become obese and likely even less physically active as a result.

These children experience physical activities differently from non-obese children. Rigorous physical play is difficult and they are often physically awkward. In a recent study investigating the developmental progression of young children's overhead ladder usage, approximately 120 children ages 3 to 10 were observed traversing the apparatus. The only children who were unable to successfully navigate the equipment were obese, according to researchers.

The increase in overweight American youths can be attributed to several factors, the primary one being the sedentary lifestyle practiced by an alarming number of children. The Internet and video game booms give kids a reason to stay inside and sit in front of a glowing screen. The idea of going outside to play no longer holds the same appeal it did just one generation go.

A recent study observed children between the ages of 7 and 11 who participated in a four-month-long exercise program. The research showed that the kids who engaged in sustained physical activity for 40 minutes every day after school experienced a significant reduction in fat—without any dietary changes.

The Chattanooga parks department decided to address the problem with equipment that includes a lot of climbing structures. The apparatus encourages kids to build muscle that helps burn fat.

"It's geared more toward strength training with kids, and they're not even thinking about it," O'Rear said. "We had a really good feeling about this (playground system). We knew it would be able to draw in kids."

O'Rear envisions the city's facilities becoming the "playground capital of the world." The secret to the system's success, he said, is the parks' ability to get kids to exercise without even knowing it.

Even grown-up kids seem to be enjoying Chattanooga's new system. Adults typically shy away from slides and swings, but they seem to have no qualms about testing the climbing walls or trying the rings.

"It's all about removing barriers from people in life so they can be active," O'Rear said. "We offer kids a way to play, have fun and get in shape all at the same time. It's about getting people outside and getting them moving."

In Wichita, park officials have embraced a three-dimensional playground system that offers each kid an infinite number of ways to enter, exit and move through the station. It challenges kids to develop spatial awareness, strength and agility.

The system is different from most playgrounds because it exerts a gravitational force on the urge to play. When they enter a sphere, they enter an entire world of gliding, spinning, maneuvering and inventing.

When Wichita selected modern playground equipment, it served as a replacement for outdated equipment at one of the city's biggest softball complexes. Kupper said he has never regretted the upgrade.

"The new stuff is so unique," he said. "Kids can do so many things and keep themselves occupied for a much longer time. It's state-of-the-art. It's such an improvement over things that were done only 10 years ago."

Kupper admits he was skeptical when Wichita was first chosen as a test site for the technology. The design was different from anything he had ever seen at a playground, a definite break from what his community would consider traditional equipment.

Residents' reactions, however, quickly told park officials that they were part of something special. In addition to attracting children, it has been a magnet for adults.

"Just about anybody, any size or any shape, can play on it," Kupper said. "Kids just love it and the parents are intrigued. I've seen active parents and grandparents playing on this equipment."

The equipment—which also is graffiti-resistant—convinced Kupper that successful playgrounds don't have to have fanciful themes to be successful. They just have to invite creativity and encourage movement in order to keep children entertained.

The equipment's free-style form and unique aesthetics introduce a whole new world of park play. Arching spheres can be linked together in a linear fashion or create a triangular layout of three spheres connected by a challenging mix of horizontal ladders, cable climbers and play components. The system also allows the maximum amount of play in a minimum amount of space, an important consideration for any recreation manager.

"The new stuff is so unique," Kupper said. "Kids can do so many things and keep themselves occupied for a much longer time."