Feature Article - January 2008
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The Play's the Thing

Innovation and Safety Meet on the Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Although you may think fondly of a childhood spent spinning yourself silly on a metal merry-go-round, climbing high above the concrete on a jungle gym (metal again), and landing hard after flinging yourself off a swing in mid-flight—those were the days, weren't they?—these days playgrounds are required to be a bit, well, safer.

Not that this is a bad thing. Playgrounds should be safe places for kids to play, and the reasons to support this goal range from protecting our little darlings to protecting park management from costly lawsuits. But the way this goal is pursued can vary widely, and there are times when a battle rages between the rigors of safety standards and the desire for a creative, challenging play place.

"At present time, national safety standards and guidelines have become so complex that they are creating difficulties," said Dr. Joe Frost, professor emeritus at University of Texas in Austin, member of the IPEMA (International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association) Voice of Play advisory board, and renowned researcher of children's play and play environments. "There's also inconsistency between national and state standards, which leaves people who develop and sponsor playgrounds in a quandary."

In the most extreme instances, "people are taking out playgrounds and eliminating recess for liability reasons and fear of being sued," Frost added.

Everything from not having enough staff or budget resources to keep up with playground maintenance to some equipment being more trouble than it's worth can cause playground options to shrink—or even disappear. Particularly in school settings, where educators have so much on their plate already, along with ever-shrinking budgets, playgrounds and recess may go the way of the dodo bird. But this can't be the answer.

"Playgrounds are essential for children," Frost said. "They're essential to developing play-related skills that allow cognitive development, social development and physical development. Play has therapeutic power. It helps children deal with trauma, with problems in life, and it helps keep kids fit. Play is just as important as an academic subject."

A recent study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, "Recess Rules," confirms Frost's perspective. Just 36 percent of children meet doctors' recommendations for physical activity, but "if kids are fit, they are more likely to be fit to learn," the study explains.

Not only is the downgrading or disappearance of places to play to the detriment of children, it can be to the detriment of your facility if word gets out that your playground is a dud—or dangerous. But you don't have to choose between safety and fun, innovative playground design. Playground equipment manufacturers and those who study this sort of thing have developed some quite progressive ideas in recent years, and with a little research, planning and preparation, your park can reap the benefits.