School playgrounds are not child's play anymore.
Gordon Shepherd (top) and Alison Price swing on the playground at Evans Elementary School. Workers recently installed a new fitness station at the school.
Photo by Jim Blaylock
The monkey bars and swing sets of the past have become complicated, expensive and intricate play sets governed by rules and regulations. Industry lingo describes them now as play environments.
At Evans Elementary School, older, wooden playground equipment looks enviously upon the new fitness station that's just been installed.
Principal Joy Quinn said it's light years away from what she grew up with.
"The slide we had was really tall at my elementary school," she said. "Our swing set had the board you sit on, rather than the plastic strip. We had a carousel you would stand on and push with your feet and an all-metal jungle gym."
Physical education teacher Michelle Lee said the new equipment includes five fitness stations: a pull-up bar, parallel bars, climbing wall, horizontal ladder and a push-up/curl-up station.
"The purpose is to increase cardiovascular and muscular endurance and, for some kids, flexibility," Lee said. "They definitely need things to improve their upper-body strength. Very few kids these days have the upper-body strength to pull their own body weight."
The fitness station cost $4,000, but some playground equipment can cost $20,000 to $30,000 for each piece.
Each elementary school will get $5,000 from the current Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax to purchase new playground equipment, said school system Comptroller Pat Sullivan.
There's an alphabet soup of government agencies and organizations that set guidelines regarding safety of public playground equipment. Public play areas must also must meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
"A lot of the newer equipment has plastic parts, rather than metal parts," Quinn said. "If we were to take down the old slide here now, we could not replace it with the same kind of slide."
Stevens Creek Elementary School is in the process of a major playground renovation project to replace its decade-old equipment.
"The all-wooden structure has basically outlived its life and is too costly to repair. We'll be breaking ground and installing new equipment over the summer," PTO President Chris Baum said.
While finding the money to pay for it is one thing, picking out the equipment is another challenge.
"There are a ton of vendors out there. There are lots of climbing structures, conversation pits, things like that," Baum said. "We had to consider the number of kids using it, how long they were going to have to play out there. But safety was probably the biggest thing. The industry does have standards now that weren't in place when we purchased the original equipment, so it was easy to identify what would be age-appropriate for our group."
The school will be purchasing two sets of swings and a large structure that's composed of many different elements, such as slides, tires and a bridge.
"The biggest thing that drives it now is safety," Baum said. "Remember the old-fashioned merry-go-round where you would get a bunch of kids on and spin at exorbitant speeds? We did not see many of those from our vendors. There were no tunnels where the kids would be out of view, and we had to consider the depth of ground cover as relates to the height of the equipment."
Baum said they have not tallied up the final cost and are just kicking off fund-raising efforts to pay for the new equipment.
Opening a new school meant all new playground equipment for Lewiston Elementary School Principal Mike Doolittle. On May 4, the PTO retired its $25,000 playground debt.
"We tried to do units we could add to with lots of variety and color," he said.
The school has two playgrounds with swings, slides and climbing bars.
"They don't call them monkey bars anymore," Doolittle added.
He said his school's playgrounds are quite different from the one he grew up with.
"Ours had no color. Everything was galvanized pipe with swings, chin-up bars, merry-go-round-type things," Doolittle said. "We don't use that kind of equipment any more. It's just not safe. It's gone from very plain and minimal, to very elaborate and colorful."
The new emphasis on safety is the reason why America's playgrounds recently received higher marks - a C+ for safety - in a report by the National Program for Playground Safety, or NPPS. It was a slight improvement from the C grade posted in 2000. NPPS revisited more than 3,000 child care, school and park playgrounds reviewed during the original study.
Surveyors found newer, safer equipment on many of those playgrounds, which contributed to the grade improvement. Playground safety training and adoption of safety guidelines developed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission contributed to the improvement. Since 1980, playground equipment manufacturers have followed design guidelines that reduce the risk of injury.
Each year, more than 205,800 kids age 14 and younger visit emergency rooms for playground injuries. Three out of four non-fatal playground injuries happen on public playgrounds, with most occurring at schools or child-care centers.
For more information, visit NPPS' Web site www.playgroundsafety.org.
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