Supplement Feature - April 2008
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Play Date

Planning Pleasing Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie


Kids' health, especially when it comes to rising rates of childhood obesity, is becoming a strong issue of concern in America. The solution to improving their health, McConkey said, is through physical activity—something innovative new play systems can offer. Such activity results in elevated heart rates and improvements in muscle tone.

"It's important for kids to try to overcome some of the negative effects of their lifestyles," he explained. "We try to get them off the couch and onto the playground and become healthy and active. This encourages balance and coordination in a constantly changing position in relation to gravity. They lean into a net climber in a way that supports weight and then lean away from it and use different muscles. They can then balance and counterbalance against gravity and use free-form play and their own experience."

So how do playgrounds now differ from those from a decade or two ago? It usually boils down to one word: safety.

"When you think back to the type of swings and slides we used to have, there have been a lot of things from a safety standpoint that we consider now that they didn't then," Scarbrough said. "Metal getting hot on slides when sun comes out is a good example."

Safety has indeed been one of the biggest differences, French-Lee said, noting that children used to ride in the back of their parents' trucks. Things have changed now in terms of the consideration of safety: equipment height, material used, metal, screws, wood to be used. "It wasn't an issue before, but now we really look into it—especially for the daycare," she said.

Along with improved safety standards, there are also liability issues to consider. Hausler remembered that playgrounds used to be built atop grassy surfaces. These days, such a hard surface would be unthinkable.

Maynard noted that some playgrounds used to be built on asphalt—again, not a chance these days. Others had jungle gyms and merry-go-rounds that now would be considered dangerous; kids could fall off, get thrown off or get hit in the head.

What does the future hold for how playgrounds are built, expanded and refurbished? That's a question for tomorrow's parents, communities and safety standards.