Feature Article - July 2012
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Maintenance & Operations: Playgrounds

Playgrounds and Sense of Place

By Tammy York

One of the building blocks to a healthy lifestyle is active play, especially playing outdoors. Play engages the senses and helps children learn problem-solving skills. Active physical play requires a complex communication between problem-solving, planning and acting. This trifecta of sorts helps children develop muscle skills and the neural connections to maximize the potential of the muscle.

As the American population of adults gets wider and wider, we are not setting a good example for our children, who are also getting wider and wider. In fact, obesity affects 17 percent of children and teens. And as with adults, there are serious medical problems associated with carrying around all of that extra poundage, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cardiovascular problems that occur with added weight.

Stealth Health

Playground designers are building playgrounds that promote cardiovascular health. "Kids burn more calories in a more physically active experience in the playground than even in organized sports and in physical education class," said John McConkey, IPEMA member and market insights manager with a Delano, Minn.-based play equipment manufacturer. This is done by creating an environment that is exciting and challenging, but also promotes cardiovascular health, balance, muscle strength, coordination and experience, as well as cognitive planning on where to go next and how to get there.

"Kids think they are just playing and having fun; they don't realize they are getting a workout," McConkey said. Playgrounds are being designed to be inclusive environments for children to have fun and be engaged no matter what the child's ability level.

Free Range

Besides plenty of exercise and fresh air, children also need a sense of place in the ever-increasing monoculture we live in. There are very few "places" that kids can call their own and identify with on an emotional level. This might be hard for some of us to understand since you most likely grew up with the rule set of "come home when the street lights come on or when the sun goes down," and during that stretch of boundless freedom you likely explored fields, creeks and forests with abandon.

Children today are boxed in to a decreasing home range. With that restriction on movement comes the limited opportunity to identify their place in the community and the world. Since children are usually not out of sight of their parents, the sense of exploration and adventure is lost along with the ability to reason and solve problems.

Nature-based play, in which children are actually prescribed un-organized time in nature, helps children gain healthier lifestyles by increasing activity, awareness and appreciation for the world they live in and are part of. Richard Louv is an advocate of children getting outdoors and into nature-based play, and the "Leave No Child Inside" or the "New Nature Movement" is steadily gaining ground.

For more information on nature-based play, the Children and Nature Network (http://www.childrenandnature.org/) is a treasure trove of information and ideas. Some of those ideas you could translate to playground development.

Making the Grade

According to the most recent data from the National Association of State Park Directors, Americans utilize state and local parks at a higher frequency than national parks. State parks entertained more than 730 million visitors from July 2006 through June 2007, and with the majority (90.9 percent) day visitors. During this time period, states acquired 56,681 acres of parkland and spent more than $463 million on new construction of state park improvements to accommodate growing populations.

According to the latest (2009) Report Card for America's Infrastructure produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the 75 largest cities in the United States, home to more than 51 million Americans, reported spending just under $5 billion in fiscal year 2006 on urban park and recreation facilities and programming, adding more than 5,000 acres of green space. Despite such spending, the amount of parkland per resident has declined due to rapid increases in population. In 2006, the 60 largest cities averaged 18.88 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. In 2007, that number fell to 16.72 acres per 1,000 residents. As suburban areas become more densely populated with infill developments, parkland will become more important in maintaining residents' health, safety and stable property values.

This same report card rated Public Parks and Recreation a C-. However, the Trust for Public Land reported that even in the current troubling economic environment, voters in November 2008 approved a record amount of new funding measures for parks and open space. Voters supported 62 of 87 (71 percent) conservation finance ballot measures, representing a commitment to spend $7.3 billion on parks and open space. The $8.4 billion total approved by ballot measures in all of 2008 is the highest single-year amount in 10 years.