Playgrounds now so safe they're dull, critics say
The Associated Press
No 12-foot-tall metal slides shimmer and bake under the summer sun. The hulking jungle gyms where girls would hang by their knees, ponytails dangling over hard asphalt below, have been dismantled. It's hard to find those kid-powered merry-go-rounds that used to give giddy, gut-level lessons in centrifugal force.
Gone, too, are the seesaws where earlier generations learned the art of cooperation and felt the betrayal of a sudden, bruising letdown.
Schoolyards and neighborhood parks have been transformed over the past two decades in the name of safety and in fear of lawsuits. The old standbys have given way to shorter, guardrail-lined plastic-and-steel play structures, leaving childhood experts complaining about cookie-cutter sameness and sterile designs that do not challenge today's youngsters.
Many parents express a mixture of nostalgia and relief.
As Gigi climbs a short ladder to a play deck with a cheery blue plastic roof, her mother, Rebecca Elliott, recalls scaling the metal tepee, perhaps 20 feet high, on the blacktop of her elementary school in Freehold, N.J.
"The big jungle gym was cool, but at least once a year someone would have a concussion or a broken arm," said Elliott, 35. She would not allow her daughter on the giant slide she loved as a girl. She also is glad there is no danger that Gigi would be slammed in the head by a hard, wooden swing seat, as her paternal grandmother was as a girl.
In the name of safety
Indeed, the litany of injuries on old-style playgrounds is gruesome: broken bones, brain damage, paralysis, blindness and, sometimes, death.
To the frustration of safety advocates, emergency rooms still treat more than 200,000 children a year who are injured on playgrounds. No one doubts that conditions have improved dramatically since the federal government published its first playground guidelines in 1981.
"Now that we know what we know, we'll probably never go back," said Mary Rivkin, chairwoman of the education department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Rightfully so, she says, and yet, "It's very sad. To me, children's experiences are being curtailed and limited in the name of safety."
Also blamed are a dearth of creative planning, overburdened city budgets, schools focused more on test scores, and a lack of demand among increasingly sedentary parents and children. Whatever the reasons, there is a widespread feeling among those who study children that somewhere along the way, playground design took a wrong turn.
"Over the years we've seen that adult ideas about what makes a good playground for children are frequently very wrong," said Joe Frost, a University of Texas professor emeritus who made a career of studying child's play.
Notions of play differ
The nation's first organized playgrounds, in the mid-1800s, were handmade imitations of the German style of outdoor physical education. They were heavy on overhead rings and pommel horses.
Seeing their opportunity, manufacturers began selling steel seesaws, slides and swings to parks and city schools as the century turned.
Meanwhile, the kindergarten model, also from Germany, brought a different type of outdoor play for younger children, emphasizing sand and blocks and gardens — things to touch and move and mold — complemented by small seesaws and swings.
"We've had parallel movements from this time on," Frost said. Child-development centers stress nature and creative play, while parks and elementary schools mostly build playgrounds to build muscles.
Somehow, the two ideas rarely come together at a public playground.
"What is lacking on most American playgrounds," he said, "are the materials, the spaces and the equipment for other forms of play: make-believe, organized games, creative play with things like sand and water, nature areas and gardens, and building materials and people around who know how to involve children in those things."
'Novelty' over 'adventure'
Frost points to the "adventure playgrounds" that developed after World War II in Britain, Germany, Sweden and Denmark, where school-age children not only swing and climb but use hammers and nails to build their own forts, splash in water, sometimes even cook over a fire. Adult "play leaders" guide the activities.
More than a dozen adventure playgrounds were built in the United States in the 1970s; three remain, all in California.
"They didn't last," Frost said. "Americans looked on them as ugly and messing up the neighborhood, as junkyards."
Instead, postwar Americans embraced "novelty" playgrounds, with climbers modeled after spaceships or Cinderella's coach. When the novelty wore off, more natural-looking wooden structures caught on in the 1970s (causing worries today because of arsenic in pressure-treated wood).
Through it all, with a few creative exceptions, the heart of the playground remained the same: tall slide, swings and jungle gym, set in concrete or packed earth.
"As someone was going up the ladder to the slide, if they got pushed and fell, they inevitably broke something," said PlayCore executive Tom Norquist, a board member of the equipment maker's trade group.
It took two women alarmed by the injuries — a Washington, D.C., teacher and a PTA member from Cleveland Heights, Ohio — to spark change. In separate petitions in the spring of 1974, they asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to write playground safety regulations.
The commission instead developed guidelines, updated occasionally, which most of the industry has embraced, partly as a defense against lawsuits. Manufacturers added their own standards.
Probably the most important change was replacing concrete with surfaces such as mulch, sand or rubber matting to cushion falls. Jungle gyms were targeted because children can fall onto the interior crossbars. The government also warned against sharp edges, moving parts that can pinch or crush, and ropes that can entangle.
"There's been a significant improvement," said John Preston, a safety-commission playground expert who retired in 1999. "The sad fact, though, is that the injuries really haven't come down significantly. Whether that's because there are many more playgrounds in use today and more children using them, I don't know."
No one has done enough research to settle the question.
Of course, much of the pre-1981 equipment remains scattered across the country, especially at apartments and motels. Also, many playgrounds don't do a good job of maintaining the shock-absorbing fill used to cushion falls; a 2000 study found more than half of playgrounds did not have enough.
Younger kids getting hurt
The safety changes may have inadvertently fostered a trend that contributes to injuries — younger and younger children on the playground. Many of today's brightly colored playgrounds that are designed according to government guidelines for children ages 5 to 12 attract the diapers-to-kindergarten set.
"We often see parents taking that 2- or 3-year-old and putting them on that higher equipment, where if they look away or let go, the child might fall off," Norquist said. Children age 4 and younger account for one-third of playground injuries.
By age 8 or so, kids tend to drift away from playgrounds to team sports, skateboards and video games. There is debate over whether more exciting designs would draw them back.
At the moment, the fun-vs.-safety debate is focused on height.
Safety advocates are pushing the government to add an 8-foot limit to its guidelines. A few manufacturers want to keep making 12-foot plastic slides. Preston said he struggled with the issue during his days overseeing the guidelines.
"If you make it too low, the children are going to look at it and say, 'I really don't want to play with that,' " Preston said, adding they might abandon the playground to "go climb a tree and fall out of the tree."
Trying to add excitement
The National Program for Playground Safety has been studying ways to make playgrounds more exciting but just as safe. For example, director Donna Thompson said, raising the height of a balance beam increases risk. But the walk across a lower beam can be made more challenging by adding curves, tipping it to one side, or angling it up, then down.
A few cities are blending landscaping and other custom touches with playground equipment, Norquist said. But with schools and parks hamstrung by budget cuts, he said, "That is definitely the exception."
Manufacturers try to jazz up playgrounds by adding colors, shapes and textures to the poured rubber surfacing. Norquist, who grew up playing in the woods and crossing a 40-foot-deep ravine on a log, said one of PlayCore's new structures tries to copy the fun of a treehouse.
As for Gigi's parents, they like the childhood experts' ideas about adding bushes for hiding, hills for climbing, water for splashing and small pieces to move.
Gigi gathers a few bits of gravel to pile on a metal bridge, then wanders off to pick clover while her parents talk animatedly — the way grown-ups do when asked about the playgrounds of their childhood.
"You know what we never see anymore? The merry-go-round. I loved that! I would ride until I was nauseous," says her father, Michael McGaughey.
"But somebody was always flying off," Gigi's mom gently reminds him.
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company