Pump Up the Fun

What’s new on the playground?

By Stacy St. Clair

There's no ignoring childhood obesity.

It's a national epidemic that threatens our children's health and, if left unaddressed, will heavily tax North American health care systems in the future. It's an enemy so persistent and prevalent, roughly one in every six children between the ages of 6 and 11 are considered dangerously overweight.

It seems that everyone has declared war on childhood obesity. Presidential candidates vow to eradicate it if elected. Talk show hosts try to mobilize stay-at-home moms. Medical experts have made a call to arms.

While these groups all play important roles, they are not on the front lines of the battle. That arduous assignment belongs in part to recreation, sports and fitness facility managers. They're the ones charged with creating the engaging programs and purchasing the attractive equipment that will get kids moving.

"Instead of blaming children for being overweight, we need to encourage them and help them to make healthier choices," acting U.S. Surgeon General Kenneth P. Moritsugu said. "I want to encourage everyone who has the ability to teach our nation's children about healthy eating and physical activity."

With this charge in mind, forward-thinking recreation facility managers have made playgrounds ground zero in this winnable war against childhood obesity. They offer children opportunities for physical activity on a daily basis, giving them a free place to run, jump and build muscle.

"The new national studies show that kids are now getting a majority of their exercise on the playground and not through other recreational activities, said Doug Kupper, director of the Parks and Recreation Department for Wichita, Kan.

The city has answered those studies by going on the offensive with a completely new playground system. The equipment promotes unscripted play and provides continuous challenges—things that keep the kids playing longer and faster.

Meanwhile in Chattanooga, Tenn., the parks and recreation department is attacking the problem with a sleek, modern playground system that gets kids moving. The equipment—which was installed at two local recreation centers—goes beyond the traditional slides and swings. With a mixture of features such as climbers, circuit walls and rings, children are encouraged to stretch, build upper-body strength and fuel their competitive spirit.

"We wanted more than a playground," said Rick O'Rear, the department's director of fitness and wellness. "We wanted to appeal to more age groups and give them exercise benefits. That's the key. They're playing, and they don't realize they're exercising because it's fun."

Play It Safe

Nothing slows a child's improving fitness faster than a twisted ankle or a head injury. Each year, more than 200,000 children are hurt on the playground. Making sure your facility meets current safety standards is one way to help reduce injuries.

We offer 10 tips—courtesy of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA)—for keeping your playgrounds as safe as possible:

1. Check the surface. Falls are the number one cause of injury on the playground. A child who falls on a hard surface such as concrete or even grass can be seriously injured or, worse, killed. Make sure to use the proper, recommended material underneath and around your playground equipment.
2. Make sure there is enough space underneath and around your playground equipment. For swings, the safe-use zone is twice the height of the swing hanger both in front of and behind the swing and six feet on either side of the swing support. The safe-use zone for slides depends on the height of the slide. In general, the safe-use zone equals the height of the slide plus an additional four feet. Bars and similar equipment should have six feet of clear space in every direction.
3. Embrace diversity. Your playground should have equipment for both pre-school and school-age children. Injury—and apparatus damage—occurs when kids play on equipment too old or young for them.
4. Prevent impaling. Thoroughly inspect your equipment for any jutting pieces of hardware that could cause injury.
5. Eliminate strangulation risks. Make sure there's nothing on the playground that would snag pieces of clothing, jewelry or strings.
6.Space it out. Industry standards recommend 12 feet between equipment, with no overlap of safe-use zones.
7. No pinching. Make sure there are no moving parts that could pinch a child's finger.
8. Don't trip. Surfaces should be smooth and level, with no tree stumps and roots.
9. Keep it up. Your equipment needs to be well-maintained. All hardware and the playground surface should be in good shape. Rust and other signs of deterioration may signal poor maintenance.
10. Out with the old. If your playground hasn't been renovated since 1993, you might want to consider an upgrade. Outdated playground equipment can be extremely dangerous. For example, during the '60s, '70s and '80s, heavy metal animal swings were commonplace on playgrounds. Today, however, we know these pieces can be lethal battering rams to the children who walk in front of them.

A growing problem

As recreation facility managers continue to fight their valiant battle, it's important to realize just how serious childhood obesity is. Each year, more children are killed by obesity than gun violence, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General's office. And, for the first time in history, there's a chance that the new generations of Americans will live shorter and less healthy lives because of obesity's debilitating affects.

Nine million youths, or 15 percent of the nation's children and adolescents, are considered obese today. That figure has tripled since 1980, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's office.

Obesity has contributed to an increase of asthma and type 2 diabetes among children. It also increases the likelihood that those overweight children will develop heart disease, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer as adults.

More than 70 percent of obese children grow up to be obese adults, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overeating also is predicted to overtake tobacco-related disease as the number one cause of preventable death in the United States.

Experts agree that obesity is the end result of an inversely proportional relationship between activity level and caloric intake. In other words, as activity levels go down and caloric intake goes up, the chances of obesity increase. Children who take in more calories than they burn become obese and likely even less physically active as a result.

These children experience physical activities differently from non-obese children. Rigorous physical play is difficult and they are often physically awkward. In a recent study investigating the developmental progression of young children's overhead ladder usage, approximately 120 children ages 3 to 10 were observed traversing the apparatus. The only children who were unable to successfully navigate the equipment were obese, according to researchers.

The increase in overweight American youths can be attributed to several factors, the primary one being the sedentary lifestyle practiced by an alarming number of children. The Internet and video game booms give kids a reason to stay inside and sit in front of a glowing screen. The idea of going outside to play no longer holds the same appeal it did just one generation go.

A recent study observed children between the ages of 7 and 11 who participated in a four-month-long exercise program. The research showed that the kids who engaged in sustained physical activity for 40 minutes every day after school experienced a significant reduction in fat—without any dietary changes.

The Chattanooga parks department decided to address the problem with equipment that includes a lot of climbing structures. The apparatus encourages kids to build muscle that helps burn fat.

"It's geared more toward strength training with kids, and they're not even thinking about it," O'Rear said. "We had a really good feeling about this (playground system). We knew it would be able to draw in kids."

O'Rear envisions the city's facilities becoming the "playground capital of the world." The secret to the system's success, he said, is the parks' ability to get kids to exercise without even knowing it.

Even grown-up kids seem to be enjoying Chattanooga's new system. Adults typically shy away from slides and swings, but they seem to have no qualms about testing the climbing walls or trying the rings.

"It's all about removing barriers from people in life so they can be active," O'Rear said. "We offer kids a way to play, have fun and get in shape all at the same time. It's about getting people outside and getting them moving."

In Wichita, park officials have embraced a three-dimensional playground system that offers each kid an infinite number of ways to enter, exit and move through the station. It challenges kids to develop spatial awareness, strength and agility.

The system is different from most playgrounds because it exerts a gravitational force on the urge to play. When they enter a sphere, they enter an entire world of gliding, spinning, maneuvering and inventing.

When Wichita selected modern playground equipment, it served as a replacement for outdated equipment at one of the city's biggest softball complexes. Kupper said he has never regretted the upgrade.

"The new stuff is so unique," he said. "Kids can do so many things and keep themselves occupied for a much longer time. It's state-of-the-art. It's such an improvement over things that were done only 10 years ago."

Kupper admits he was skeptical when Wichita was first chosen as a test site for the technology. The design was different from anything he had ever seen at a playground, a definite break from what his community would consider traditional equipment.

Residents' reactions, however, quickly told park officials that they were part of something special. In addition to attracting children, it has been a magnet for adults.

"Just about anybody, any size or any shape, can play on it," Kupper said. "Kids just love it and the parents are intrigued. I've seen active parents and grandparents playing on this equipment."

The equipment—which also is graffiti-resistant—convinced Kupper that successful playgrounds don't have to have fanciful themes to be successful. They just have to invite creativity and encourage movement in order to keep children entertained.

The equipment's free-style form and unique aesthetics introduce a whole new world of park play. Arching spheres can be linked together in a linear fashion or create a triangular layout of three spheres connected by a challenging mix of horizontal ladders, cable climbers and play components. The system also allows the maximum amount of play in a minimum amount of space, an important consideration for any recreation manager.

"The new stuff is so unique," Kupper said. "Kids can do so many things and keep themselves occupied for a much longer time."

Under cover

Just a few short years ago, Warnick Jewish Day School faced a recreational dilemma. The school, located in Foster City, Calif., liked to give students a chance to enjoy the great outdoors, but officials didn't want them exposed to the merciless elements.

"This place gets intense sunlight," said Bill Post, Warnick's director of operations. "California has a lot of wonderful qualities, but we use a lot of sunscreen here."

To combat the problem, the school installed two shade structures. One went over the picnic area, and the other covered the playground.

It's no exaggeration to say the decision may very well help save lives. Experts say placing shade protection over playgrounds serves as an invaluable strategy in the fight against skin cancer.

The depletion of the earth's ozone is increasing our exposure to the sun's dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays. With more than 1 million new cases diagnosed each year, skin cancer currently ranks among the fastest-growing cancers in the United States. A baby born today is twice as likely to develop skin cancer as a child born 10 years ago. Research also shows that as few as two severe sunburns during childhood double the chance of developing potentially deadly melanoma later in life.

One American dies of melanoma every 65 minutes, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. In 2007, an estimated 8,110 deaths will be attributed to melanoma in the United States, while another 2,740 will be from other types of skin cancer. A staggering 5,220 men and 2,890 women will succumb to melanoma, with older white Caucasian males having the highest mortality rates.

Worldwide, the numbers are even more staggering. The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 60,000 people a year die from too much sun, mostly from malignant skin lesions. About 90 percent of these deaths stem from overexposure to UV rays.

Though the human toll is the most important reason to worry about skin cancer's deadly impact, there are also fiduciary reasons for concern. Each year, the total direct cost of treating non-melanoma skin cancer alone is a jaw-dropping $1.5 billion.

But the benefits of shade structures go beyond just protecting kids' health. The shade structures also allow the equipment to be used in inclement weather, thus bolstering usage and providing constant fitness opportunities. In short, this once-optional park amenity has become a required element where the public's health and welfare is concerned.

Fortunately, the shade industry has proven a willing ally in the fight against UV ray exposure with long-lasting, durable and attractive components. The best elements offer extensive warranties and come in a range of colors and shapes.

At Warnick Jewish Day School, the shade structures have bolstered outdoor programming. Students now eat their lunches under the shade structures, while the playground is getting more use than it ever did before.

The shade elements give children a place to play even during inclement weather. Having a rainy-day option is an important perk in Foster City, where the residents are no strangers to daily precipitation.

"It was awful before," Post said. "Kids were in rain or direct sunlight. There was no protected area on the entire campus."

Post now cheers his shade structures, which he says are well-constructed and shield his students well in both rain showers and sunshine. The structures also add a little pizzazz to the campus.

"The shade structure is the single best thing we have going on campus," Post said. "We have no regrets and would do it again. It's one of the favorite creature comforts."

When purchasing a new shade system, be sure to ask yourself several questions: What is the warranty on rust through corrosion on metal components? What is the deterioration warranty on fabric canopies, including stitching thread? And, most importantly, what percentage of UV rays does the canopy screen?

Facility managers also should consider whether the shade element's design allows you to remove and then reattach the canopies during the winter or in the event of severe weather such as a hurricane. While most canopies can withstand at least 80-mile-per-hour winds, some do not provide a substantial snow-load rating. Other types also cannot survive a hurricane's angry thrashing. Therefore, it's important to look for a system that enables you to remove canopies as needed and easily reattach them later without hiring outside installers.

When deciding how large or how tall your shade cover should be, you must consider playground requirements established by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Overhead obstacles should be at least 7 feet away from the nearest designated play surface. As the amount of shade provided is inversely related to the shade cover's height, try not to exceed the minimum by too much. Check with your manufacturer for exact spacing, as many shade roofs are hip designs that rise higher as they approach the canopy's center. On all shade applications, common sense should prevail when deciding where to place the posts. For example, avoid high-traffic areas and beware of underground piping and building foundations.

Canopies also offer a secondary benefit to recreation managers with tight budgets. Facilities throughout the country use colorful permanent shade structures to give their playgrounds a little pizzazz, in addition to providing protection from the elements. While they're keeping patrons safe, shade structures need not be sterile, boring elements. Embrace the various shades and colors offered as a way to add some flair to your park. Vibrant hues and fun styles can bolster a playful and energetic atmosphere at your facility.

The City of Burbank, for example, now has four parks with shade canopies. Officials installed the structures in an effort to keep their patrons comfortable as they played under the relentless Southern California sun.

The end result has been a boost in attendance. The park seems more user-friendly even during the hottest hours of the day, said Deputy Park Director Jan Bartolo. In addition to protecting patrons from the sun, the canopies also keep the equipment cool so children can use the playground in comfort.

"A majority of our park patrons are in the shaded areas," Bartolo said. "It makes the park more usable and accessible on an all-day basis. Moms aren't keeping their kids away from the park at the peak sun hours of 10 to 2 anymore."

Bartolo also has high praise for the canopies' aesthetic value. The fabric canopies add a splash of color, while keeping the sun from fading the playground equipment.

"Aesthetically, we find it to be quite nice," Bartolo said. "It's very colorful and inviting and it matches our existing play structure."

Though the process is relatively easy, Bartolo said it's not as simple as opening up a catalog and picking a shade structure. It requires park planning and budgeting. The result, however, is well worth the effort. In fact, Burbank now has plans to protect all of its parks with shade cover.

After all, anything that encourages children to be more active—while protecting them from potentially deadly ultraviolet rays—benefits everyone.

"It has been very well received," Bartolo said. "There's a noticeable difference between the shaded and non-shaded areas. It's a trend we're going with."

An Open-Door Policy

Playgrounds clearly help in the fight against childhood obesity—but only when they're open.

Many schools, particularly those in minority and poor neighborhoods, keep their playgrounds locked on the weekends. A new study conducted by the RAND Corporation, the nation's largest independent health policy research program, shows institutions that occasionally close their playgrounds may be jeopardizing the fitness of local children.

The study, which was released this spring, is a new analysis of data from a national research study called the Trial of Activity for Adolescent Girls. The data deal with the physical activity of 1,556 girls in the sixth grade in six metropolitan areas: Washington, D.C./Baltimore; Columbia, S.C..; Minneapolis; New Orleans; Tucson, Ariz.; and San Diego.

Researchers visited all the schools and parks within a half-mile radius of the homes of the girls on Saturdays in the spring of 2003 for the original study. The 407 schools represented 44 percent of potential neighborhood sites for physical activity.

Researchers found that, on average, 66 percent of the schools were unlocked on weekends. But only 57 percent of schools were both unlocked and had accessible facilities for weekend physical activities such as playgrounds, athletic fields, basketball courts and paved playing surfaces.

The percent of unlocked schools with accessible amenities varied across the communities in this way:

New Orleans - 23 percent (before Hurricane Katrina)
Tucson - 50 percent
Washington/Baltimore - 54 percent
San Diego - 74 percent
Columbia - 77 percent
Minneapolis - 93 percent

"Girls who lived near locked schools tended to be heavier, and neighborhoods with locked schools were disproportionately poor and had larger minority populations," said Molly Scott, lead author of the study and a RAND research analyst. "These neighborhoods, where risk of obesity is high and public parks and playgrounds are often lacking, could benefit from convenient and safe places for physical activity. And making schools accessible doesn't require construction. It's a policy change."

Although the RAND Health study didn't find a relationship between school accessibility and increased weekend physical activity rates, the number of locked schools was associated with significantly higher body mass index for the girls. Body mass index, or BMI, is a mathematical formula representing weight relative to height that can be used to determine whether a person is overweight or underweight.

The study found differences in BMI and physical activity by the girls' race and socioeconomic status, consistent with the findings of previous studies. Hispanic and African-American girls had 7.2 percent and 7.8 percent higher BMIs respectively than Caucasians. Non-white girls recorded less physical activity than their Caucasian counterparts.

"Studies consistently find that people of different races have different BMIs, but the policy implications of that are often unclear," Scott said. "This study identifies locked schools as great points of policy intervention where gains in the fight against obesity could potentially be made."

More research is needed, Scott said, noting that the study did not measure whether the girls in the study actually used the school facilities for exercise. The fact that girls with higher BMIs tended to live in areas with locked schools also could signal that the girls live in a more stressful, high-crime area or a neighborhood with less access to stores that sell healthy food.

Researchers measured the girls' physical activity with accelerometers—devices that measure intensity of movement. Since middle school girls aren't old enough to drive, the RAND study looked at locations within a half-mile of the girls' homes—a distance they might be expected to walk or ride their bikes. Researchers also examined data on the girls' weekend activity levels.

Three-fourths of the schools in the study were public schools, and playground and athletic facilities there were locked about as frequently as private schools.

Public schools had the highest average number of active amenities and a significantly higher proportion of baseball fields, paved playing surfaces, basketball and handball courts and high-level gymnastics equipment.

The study is titled "Weekend Schoolyard Accessibility, Physical Activity, and Obesity: The Trial of Activity in Adolescent Girls (TAAG) Study." It is currently available online at the Science Direct Web site, www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00917435.

Essential play

If there's any doubt about how essential playgrounds are to kids' health, consider what happened when Georgia's Department of Education banned recess because officials believed it was a wasteful exercise that took away valuable learning time.

Two years later, they admitted they were wrong. It seems that children who have the opportunity to release stress during recess earn better grades and are more engaged in the classroom.

A recent University of South Florida study discovered that children increased their caloric burn during free play sessions on the playground. In fact, the research shows that one recess on average burned half of the minimum calories that the U.S. Surgeon General recommends through activity beyond their normal daily metabolic rate.

Sometimes, experts say, the easiest way to get kids moving is by simply letting them have fun. In Key Biscayne, Fla., park officials installed a playground in 1995, and the system was later rated the best in Miami-Dade County.

Rather than rest on its laurels, the village decided it could do better. The 2000 census showed that the island town had one of the region's fastest-growing youth populations. The parks and recreation department, which serves 10,000 residents, decided to spare no expense when it came time to build new equipment.

"In the city, we try to reach for the stars with everything we do," parks director Todd Hofferberth said. "Having the best playground for the kids was the first priority, and budget considerations were the second priority."

One of the village councilwomen urged the parks department to purchase a large web structure like the one on which her children had often played in Europe. Officials ended up selecting a similar structure and then bolstered it with climbers, a bridge and adventure tubes. The manufacturer captured Key Biscayne's beachy essence by adding images of the local lighthouse, coral and fish.

The playground officially opened on April 20, 2007, but children had been closely watching over its construction for nearly two weeks. The kids could hardly contain their excitement during the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Hofferberth said.

"The most challenging thing I've ever done in my career was to keep the kids off the play equipment the 30 minutes between the park being completed and the official ribbon-cutting ceremony," he said.

In the first few weeks after the playground opened, Hofferberth stopped by the park every night on the way home from work. He was pleased to see the web structure had become the most popular feature, just as the local councilwoman predicted.

He was equally thrilled to see the equipment playing an important role in the island's active lifestyle. To see scores of children climbing, jumping, running, playing and simply having fun is one of the greatest rewards recreation managers can hope for.

"It's always packed and kids really seem to be enjoying it," Hofferberth said. "We've maximized every square inch. Traditional playgrounds shouldn't even be a consideration anymore."

Learn More

Here are some additional sources to help you in your quest to build the perfectly engaging playground.

International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association, www.ipema.org, 888-944-7362

National Center for Boundless Playgrounds, www.boundlessplaygrounds.org, 860-243-8315

National Program for Playground Safety, www.playgroundsafety.org, 800-554-PLAY

Association for Childhood Education International, www.acei.org, 800-423-3563

KaBOOM! www.kaboom.org, 202-659-0215

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