High-Performance Playground

By Lynn Pinoniemi

All 54 of the elementary schools in the Brevard County, Fla., school district have play structures, and while some are quite new, others are starting to show their age under the intense glare of the Florida sun. To most observers, these playgrounds appear to suit the needs of the children quite well. During recess they are full of laughing, screaming kids who appear to be doing a good job of blowing off excess energy.


But as Valerie Harville visited these schools and watched kids play, she began to see things differently. As the curriculum coordinator for the school district's Health and Physical Education departments, her view of school playgrounds is filtered through a keen awareness of the needs of healthy, growing children. What she saw were many playgrounds that seemed to be chronic underachievers.

"Many of the playgrounds were colorful and eye-catching, but they seemed to put a lot of kids of different ages together in a small area," Harville says. "Moreover, they seemed to rely on play events that were more about style than substance. I saw a lot of kids socializing on these play structures, but very few were being challenged in ways that would build their upper-body strength, balance or coordination. I began to think that playground designs should focus more on the best interests of the kids from a developmental standpoint."

Harville voiced her concerns to Richard Smith, head of the district's safety initiatives, and Art Johnson, director of project management. After several meetings, they decided to let Harville test her theory on a playground that would be built at the new Manatee Elementary School in Viera, Fla.

"We wanted to develop a prototype playground that could be duplicated elsewhere," Johnson says.

Harville immediately began setting playground goals for Manatee Elementary, hoping that, if successful, the same goals would be used to guide equipment selection and playground design at all other elementary schools in the district.

Her first goal was safety. The Manatee playground would have separate age-appropriate areas that are clearly marked with signage. Second, this playground would be made accessible to children with special needs of all types—ambulatory, visual or auditory. Third, it would be a high-performance playground that would encourage kids to move from one event to another and to use and develop different muscle groups and improve their coordination, balance and self-confidence. Lastly, Manatee would have a customized playground supervision program, where monitors are trained how to supervise the play area and what to be alert for in terms of safety and maintenance hazards.

"The problem with many school playgrounds is that often times the people who are given responsibility for selecting the equipment and play events do not have any in-depth knowledge about child growth and development, playground safety or accessibility," she says. "They end up making decisions based on what looks fun, colorful and exciting, not on what will challenge kids and motivate them to develop physically and socially. A better approach would be to give playground design responsibility to the people in the school or school district who are trained to manage the health and safety of the children attending the school."

According to Principal Carl Brown, there was an important difference in approach with the new playground at Manatee Elementary.


"We tried to design this playground by focusing on events that would build hand-eye coordination and develop the upper body without the kids realizing it," Brown says. "In other words, we tried to make it both fun and functional."

Harville would be the first to say that she was not a playground expert when she began work on the project.

"My educational background is in physical education and administration, and I was comfortable in those areas," she says. "But I needed to find out more about playgrounds, so I did a lot of homework. I began by asking my peers on the Council of District Administrators about their playground experiences. I wanted to know everything: what playground products they had installed, the type of service they had received and the integrity of the companies that manufactured them. I also asked them how they made decisions, who was involved and what criteria were used. I already knew that I did not want to just go with the low bidder because I don't believe you should go cheap on a playground. I prefer well-made equipment when you are talking about masses of children using it."

Harville also met with safety managers from the district, and interviewed several municipal parks and recreation professionals in Florida. In previous years she had even visited playgrounds overseas during travels to England, Japan and Australia.

"I wanted to learn from others who had gone through the process, so I asked lots of questions and took a lot of pictures," Harville says.

In time, a general picture of a prototypical playground began to emerge. Harville and Brown went through many playground catalogs from start to finish, identifying events that would challenge kids and allow them to be creative both physically and socially. Harville's list of specifications covered everything from IPEMA certification of all events and price parameters to the diameter of the play structure posts and recommendations on color (yellow handholds for better visual acuity). Above all, Harville wanted the playground to be both safe and challenging.

"A playground must encourage a certain amount of risk taking," she says. "It should get kids moving and motivate them to try new things."

Harville and the playground committee met to review the proposals from companies and select a manufacturer. After that, the playground and wood fiber safety surfacing were installed in July, and on Aug. 7, the school was officially opened to students.

To students and teachers alike, this playground looked different than many of the other playgrounds at Brevard County schools. Carl Brown also recognized that the children played on it differently.


"I think it is a combination of the newness of the playground and its challenging design, but I was immediately struck by the number of kids using the equipment," Brown says. "When I walk out there and watch a grade level of 80 children enjoying recess, 75 to 80 percent of them are playing on the new playground equipment. And that is true of first graders as well as the fifth and sixth graders. I find that to be most unusual because by that age, they are typically on to other things like basketball and soccer. This percentage is much higher than was typical at my other school, but we'll have to wait and see if that trend holds."

Though by no means large, the playground is spread out and can accommodate a large number of children at one time. According to Brown, the playground can also be used in other ways.

"This playground has also been designed for use by the P.E. department if they want to hold classes out there," he says. "The events are laid out so that the kids can move from event to event in a circular fashion."

Another barometer of success is the safety inherent in the design itself. Even though there are large numbers of children at play on the equipment, the playground is so well spread out that there is little crowding around the events.

Another key factor in minimizing playground injuries is supervision. Benches are placed so that playground supervisors who choose to rest their legs do not have any children playing behind them. Instead, they always have a clear view of the action on the equipment. Harville also made sure that these supervisors understood how to monitor the play.

"We wanted to make sure that teachers and playground supervisors knew how each play component should be used and what was considered to be unsafe behavior," she says. "We therefore made it part of the playground supplier's package that they would make a formal safety and maintenance presentation to the school staff."

When all the dust settles, Harville is hopeful that this type of playground will serve as a model for all new and replacement playgrounds in the district.

"This playground is by no means the biggest and the best out there," she says. "In fact, I purposefully designed it to be a rather basic playground. But I am hopeful that other playground planners at other elementary schools will embrace the concept of creating playgrounds that safely challenge kids to do more."

Lynn Pinoniemi is communications manager for Landscape Structures Inc. She can be reached at Lynn_Pinoniemi@playlsi.com.

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