Feature Article - January 2008
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The Play's the Thing

Innovation and Safety Meet on the Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Select Stimulating Equipment

By now you have a sense of the types of learning and development opportunities playground equipment can provide, so now you just need to select accordingly.

"I think there are some pretty exciting innovations in terms of materials, durability of materials and the variety of equipment we can get with a lot of plastic products," Hendy said. "We're seeing an introduction of artificial rock work—climbing boulders and walls—and the introduction of combination steel climbers with cable netting attached to them."

When you begin your search—whether you're starting from scratch or just adding an item or two—"go with a reputable vendor," Hendy said. "Go with someone you have experience with or an agency whose opinion you trust." Don't be afraid to interview an assortment of vendors before you make a decision, and if you do choose someone who will provide something custom-made and unique, "be careful that the custom designer has experience in the playground industry and is familiar with safety standards," Hendy said.

As you're planning the playground, don't fill your space with too many equipment options. "Sometimes we take up a lot of space with one piece," said Tammy Schilling, director of Tots in Action, a program that creates and educates about physical activity programs for preschoolers. "If you can have open areas for kids, they are more active. Don't fill up your space with all the different stuff. Kids have less room to move then."

Clearly there's work to be done where balancing safety and innovatively designed playgrounds is concerned, but as more and more parks and schools begin to factor developmentally appropriate play into their playground plans, progress can be made. "Fixing children's play is an all-inclusive task," Frost said. "Parents, agencies, schools, parks—all these need to come together." However, he is encouraged by what he has seen in recent years. Groups like No Child Left Inside, Children in Nature and Voice of Play "are taking steps to educate people about the critical importance of kids and outdoor play," he explained.

Case in point: A few months back, Frost and eight others from fields including architecture, parks and wildlife, health and medicine, and education started getting together in Austin, Texas, where he lives, to discuss "getting kids out on the playground back in touch with nature." Already the group has grown to 120 people. "This is happening around the country," he said. "People need to begin to look at playgrounds with a new eye. We need play leaders and educators at all levels who have training in children's play and how to interact with children."

There's work to be done. So let's get playing!