Feature Article - July 2007
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Pump Up the Fun

What’s new on the playground?

By Stacy St. Clair

Essential play

If there's any doubt about how essential playgrounds are to kids' health, consider what happened when Georgia's Department of Education banned recess because officials believed it was a wasteful exercise that took away valuable learning time.

Two years later, they admitted they were wrong. It seems that children who have the opportunity to release stress during recess earn better grades and are more engaged in the classroom.

A recent University of South Florida study discovered that children increased their caloric burn during free play sessions on the playground. In fact, the research shows that one recess on average burned half of the minimum calories that the U.S. Surgeon General recommends through activity beyond their normal daily metabolic rate.

Sometimes, experts say, the easiest way to get kids moving is by simply letting them have fun. In Key Biscayne, Fla., park officials installed a playground in 1995, and the system was later rated the best in Miami-Dade County.

Rather than rest on its laurels, the village decided it could do better. The 2000 census showed that the island town had one of the region's fastest-growing youth populations. The parks and recreation department, which serves 10,000 residents, decided to spare no expense when it came time to build new equipment.

"In the city, we try to reach for the stars with everything we do," parks director Todd Hofferberth said. "Having the best playground for the kids was the first priority, and budget considerations were the second priority."

One of the village councilwomen urged the parks department to purchase a large web structure like the one on which her children had often played in Europe. Officials ended up selecting a similar structure and then bolstered it with climbers, a bridge and adventure tubes. The manufacturer captured Key Biscayne's beachy essence by adding images of the local lighthouse, coral and fish.

The playground officially opened on April 20, 2007, but children had been closely watching over its construction for nearly two weeks. The kids could hardly contain their excitement during the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Hofferberth said.

"The most challenging thing I've ever done in my career was to keep the kids off the play equipment the 30 minutes between the park being completed and the official ribbon-cutting ceremony," he said.

In the first few weeks after the playground opened, Hofferberth stopped by the park every night on the way home from work. He was pleased to see the web structure had become the most popular feature, just as the local councilwoman predicted.

He was equally thrilled to see the equipment playing an important role in the island's active lifestyle. To see scores of children climbing, jumping, running, playing and simply having fun is one of the greatest rewards recreation managers can hope for.

"It's always packed and kids really seem to be enjoying it," Hofferberth said. "We've maximized every square inch. Traditional playgrounds shouldn't even be a consideration anymore."

Learn More

Here are some additional sources to help you in your quest to build the perfectly engaging playground.

International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association, www.ipema.org, 888-944-7362

National Center for Boundless Playgrounds, www.boundlessplaygrounds.org, 860-243-8315

National Program for Playground Safety, www.playgroundsafety.org, 800-554-PLAY

Association for Childhood Education International, www.acei.org, 800-423-3563

KaBOOM! www.kaboom.org, 202-659-0215