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Elementary School Playground Adventures

Kyle Cavaness, LASN

Modern play structures are designed not just for play value, but also aesthetic design, durability, and environmental sustainability. But the children on this climbing net structure at Indialantic Elementary in Indialantic, Fla., are just in it for the fun.

Playgrounds, unlike most diversions for children today, are not idle amusements. Students in Bakersfield, Calif., discovered just how exciting a playground can get when a 200-pound bear cub scampered onto the campus of Ramon Garza Elementary School May 31. More than 75 fifth-graders in the midst of a water-gun party fled from the bear as it bounded through the parking lot and the play area before being caught and returned to the nearby forest by animal control.

This playground at the Wheeler School in Rhode Island demonstrates elements like the curved poly super slide, four triangular system nets, plastic panels, flexible "Flubber" climbing wall, hammock, Flo-Flex membrane climbing wall, spider net and hand-over-hand flexible ladder/loops.

Bear sightings and the subsequent fleeing aside, an investigation of outdoor play from Hofstra University reports today's generation of youngsters are far less active in their play than their parents. The distraction of digital devices and the internet, the excess of cable and satellite television channels, and the ease of access to all of the above make it too easy for busy adults to hand their kids off to binary babysitters instead of encouraging active play.

Berliner Seilfabrik's Univers Space Net Climber Combination, seen here at Alden Park in Cambridge, Mass., provides opportunities for constant climbing and a funky appearance. The area is used both as a community park and a recess area for the adjacent Baldwin School.

The Hofstra study, performed by Prof. Rhonda Clements, found that in addition to a 30 percent generational decrease in running and chasing games (like tag), regular participation in imaginative, child-created games has decreased almost 20 percent from the childhoods of the mothers surveyed to children today. This statistic is troublesome not only for its lack of physical activity, but also for the loss of social interaction and cooperative behaviors, inventiveness, language development and other skills kids assimilate on the playground. Children inventing their own rules and variations for games like jump rope and hopscotch have also decreased - 85 percent of surveyed mothers say they created their own rules to playground games, and only 33 percent of their children do the same.

Clements' research identified more unfortunate trends - 93 percent of mothers asked said that outdoor play positively impacts children's physical and motor skill development, 75 percent agreed that social skills were affected, and 51 percent believe outdoor play positively affects creative and artistic skills. This positive outlook is unfortunate because the same group of respondents showed that 96 percent of children watch TV regularly; 81 percent play computer games and 61 percent play video games. And the physical activity that children usually get at school is slowly being sued out of existence.

The Cloud 9 access swing allows multiple children to "fly on the cloud" suspended from two posts over rubber safety surfacing.

Dr. Joe Frost, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading expert in children's play, points to the rise of lawsuits over playground safety in the last four decades as a primary driver in discouraging active play at elementary schools and local parks. The process began in the early 1970s, when playgrounds sported large manufactured pieces of equipment that are familiar to most adults. Playgrounds had large, heavy-duty metal merry-go-rounds, slides, swing sets, seesaws, jungle gyms and overhead ladders. The seemingly innocuous equipment led to head entrapments, dangerous shearing mechanisms and unyielding asphalt or concrete surfacing below it.

Complaints about injuries from jungle gym falls (onto asphalt, rocks, cement or a similarly unforgiving surface) and an increase in litigation snowballed into a regulatory commission issuing suggested playground safety guidelines that were not mandatory. Through the 1980s and '90s, the list of rules continued to bloat, becoming an unwieldy tangle of federal regulations that often contradicted state regulations and were enforced by confused, under-trained inspectors and under-funded agencies. As local, state and federal safety guidelines have become more restrictive, beleaguered parks and schools are warding off lawsuits by eliminating active play altogether. School districts in Broward County, Florida, have taken away swing sets, sand boxes, bouncy horses and merry-go-grounds and posted "no running" signs on every elementary school playground. A south Massachusetts school even banned tag, touch football and chase games due to fears over liability!

This cable netting wraps polyester and polyamide yarns around a steel core to prevent abrasions while creating an easily graspable surface for young climbers.

"The value of appropriate play has been acknowledged since antiquity and Plato, and in every century since, the most renowned philosophers and thinkers have extolled its necessity for normal human development," Frost said. "Thousands of research articles in multiple disciplines conclude that play is essential and it's an issue that's no longer really debatable.

"Good play is play that involves physical activity, creativity, spontaneity, exploration and social interaction. It engages the body in fine and gross motor development and the mind in negotiations, autonomous thinking, problem solving, imagination and flexibility."

Standing tube supports are zinc-epoxy treated, and knots and straps for ropes and panels are made of naturally corrosion-resistant aluminum.

In fairness to these fears, injury is the leading cause of death and disability for people under the age of 18 in the U.S., and injured children make about four million emergency room visits to hospitals nationwide every year. About one-third of those visits are related to falls. But Dr. Frost has found that "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" by eliminating active play altogether can lead to far more troubling mental and emotional troubles, including violent, antisocial, mentally impaired or emotionally sterile adults. About 95 percent of convicted murderers examined in one study reported either the absence of play as children or illogical, brutal, abnormal play including extreme teasing, bullying and sadism. Around 75 percent of drunk drivers examined in the same study reported play abnormalities.

The Wall-holla playsystem, designed by Dutch firm Carve, is a compact "cage" that combines a crawl-through maze and a climbing wall. Surfaces of soft EPDM, flat cable nets and open grids let children sit, walk, hang, swing, slide, run, jump, vault and hide. The ribbons create a vertical maze that adapts well to active play for a broad age range. The school pictured is the De kraal in Purmerend, The Netherlands, where the Wall-holla was installed in 2005. This design will be manufactured and distributed by Goric in North America. The first installation is scheduled for Boston in July.

It bears repeating that kids who play outdoors regularly gain improved mental and physical health, are less likely to be obese, and have a decreased risk of diabetes, heart disease and other physical disorders. Test scores in subjects like reading, writing and math often improve for children who get proper exercise, and children who participate in communal environments develop stronger social skills, confidence and self-esteem. A study of Canadian children released in May 2012 found 46 percent of kids are getting three hours or less of active play each week -- including weekends. At lunch and after school, kids average only 24 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity, despite a standing recommendation for at least an hour of such activity daily. Although such a definitive spotlight has not been cast on the play habits of American children, it is unlikely that a similar survey would yield different results.

For better or worse, the children of today and tomorrow will not have the opportunity to explore the outdoors unbound from the ever-present distractions of Nickelodeon and Angry Birds. The structures found in these pages represent efforts from schools, playground designers and landscape architects to make playgrounds both safer and more engaging for perpetually preoccupied kids.

The Kapolei Elementary school in Oahu, Hawaii, chose Miracle Recreation's Center Stage structure and a JAX Web for its "out-of-the-box" design. The structure was installed at the school by Rec and Roll LLC.

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November 12, 2019, 4:51 pm PDT

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