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Experts debunk 10 myths of playgrounds

By Donna Thompson, Susan D. Hudson, and Heather M. Olsen

Whether in the public or private domain, certain myths have developed over time concerning playgrounds. In chapters 2 through 9, we explain why it’s important to be open to new ideas about the design of play spaces for children. Here, we begin this attitude realignment by debunking 10 of the most common, entrenched beliefs in the United States about what makes a good or safe playground.

Myth 1: Playgrounds Supervise Children

Many adults seem to think that they can send children to play areas and the equipment will somehow supervise the kids. But children need guidance to determine whether or not the play area or a specific piece of equipment is safe. In addition, they need to be supervised when they play with others in case they have different opinions regarding play choices. And of course, adults should be present to cheer children’s success when they accomplish something particularly challenging, such as traveling all the way across the horizontal bars or pumping the swing a certain number of times. In short, adults must be available to assist and encourage children. We’ll study the importance of supervision in chapters 2 and 3.

Myth 2: One Size Fits All

If you consider only the physical appearance of children, it is easy to see that a 2-year-old is not the same size as a 12-year-old. It would stand to reason, then, that children in these age categories would have very different grip strengths and upper-body strengths. The next logical conclusion would be that the equipment and design of the play area should be different to meet the different sizes and developmental needs of children. These developmental needs are physical, but they are also emotional, social, and intellectual. Thus, play environments should be shaped to meet the needs of the specific children who will be using the space. Standards and guidelines since 1981 have stated that equipment should be present and separated for ages 2 to 5 years and 5 to 12 years. In 2005 a new standard was added for ages 6 to 23 months.

However, the majority of playgrounds in the United States are still developed for ages 2 to 12 years. Part of this is due to financial considerations, but a larger reason is that the public doesn’t realize that play equipment comes in three sizes, not one. Chapters 4 and 5 will take a closer look at the topic of age-appropriate design.

Myth 3: Children Develop at the Same Rate

We categorize children into groups by age simply because it’s easier to deal with large numbers than with individuals. However, children develop according to their own genetic clocks. They’re more likely to be similar by age group than by any other criteria, but this is not absolute. All children vary in physical, emotional, social, and intellectual abilities, so equipment and play areas should allow for those variations.

For example, equipment for younger children (ages 2 to 5 years) should be lower to the ground, should not contain stand-alone climbers, and should not have moveable parts. On the other hand, equipment for children over the age of 5 years will be higher and larger and will require more complex movement. Again, we’ll consider age-appropriate design in chapters 4 and 5.

Myth 4: Children’s Play Matches Manufacturer’s Design

Play is the work of children. During play, they feel free to explore, test, and challenge their surroundings and their place in the environment. It is a time when creativity and curiosity are stimulated. Thus, while the manufacturer of equipment might have a specific idea about how certain pieces should be used, children come up with other, inventive ways to create challenges. Who hasn’t seen a child climb up a slide chute from the bottom, or swing as high as possible and then leap out into the air? It would be more instructive for manufacturers and other adults to watch children use equipment and then decide how to modify existing designs or create new designs. After all, it’s easier to redesign equipment than to reconfigure children. We’ll explore this topic further in chapters 4 and 5.

Myth 5: Children With Disabilities Can’t Use Playgrounds

Children with disabilities are usually more similar to children without disabilities than they are different. They have the same needs to develop physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually to the best of their abilities. It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to get a child with disabilities onto the playground, but it has. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 states that children with disabilities must have the opportunity to play with children without disabilities in the same play areas. As we’ll see in chapter 5, we can follow specific design guidelines to enable this integration. All children have the right to play.

Myth 6: Higher Equipment Is More Fun

There is no research to support the idea that children have more fun on higher pieces of equipment and less fun on lower pieces. However, as we’ll discuss in chapter 6, there is a growing body of research that points to a greater risk of serious injury due to falls from higher equipment. Most people would be horrified to see a child jump out of a second-story window, yet adults think nothing of putting equipment on the playground that is equal to or greater than this height. As studies have shown, this problem is compounded by the lack of adequate surfacing under the majority of play equipment found in the United States.

A second consideration about height involves perception. Some children, especially those in preschool, are afraid of heights. If they perceive a danger in changing location from one level to another, they might not make the move. For example, until children are about 7 years old, they are reluctant to leave the security of a deck to reach for a pole to slide down to the ground. Therefore, adults need to approach design from a child’s perspective, not from their own idea of what would be fun.

Myth 7: Grass and Dirt Cushion Falls

Falls to inappropriate surfaces are the major contributing factor of injuries to children (Mack, Hudson, and Thompson, 1997). Turf does not provide a constant amount of resiliency; its impact absorption varies according to climatic conditions and the compaction of the dirt underneath the grass. As we’ll discuss in chapters 6 and 7, pea gravel, sand, wood products, rubber products, and unitary surfaces are much more likely to cushion falls and prevent injuries. Grass is good for golf courses, but it shouldn’t be used under and around playground equipment.

Myth 8: Playgrounds Maintain Themselves

Wood rots, plastic cracks, and steel rusts. As a result, adults must maintain and repair materials to keep them safe and make them last as long as possible. For example, screws, nuts, and bolts can loosen at points where pieces join, and other parts wear out and need to be replaced. Someone must take charge of maintenance and ensure that manufacturer’s directions for maintaining the equipment are followed on a regular basis. In chapters 8 and 9, we’ll cover equipment maintenance in more depth.

In addition, surface materials need regular maintenance. Rubber mats, tiles, and other poured-in-place materials need to be replaced periodically. This is especially true of loose fill surfaces, which might be at the proper depth at the start of the day but become displaced during the course of play. Adults must replace or redistribute loose fill materials as needed to ensure an adequate supply. Children can do this, too, when they’ve finished playing-a quick kick of the loose fill surfacing under a swing or slide can help put surfacing materials back in place.

Myth 9: Equipment Lasts Forever

Nothing’s built to last forever, but some adults think that playground equipment is the exception. It’s true that equipment made of steel can last 50 years, but many playgrounds in the United States have pieces that are already this old or older. Similarly, wooden equipment will rot, and plastic equipment will crack.

We also need to approach this myth from the other direction. Sometimes equipment should be replaced even when it’s in good condition so that we can take advantage of new technology and new insights into child development. We must modify older playgrounds to keep up with advancements. We will address this topic in chapters 8 and 9.

Myth 10: A New Playground Is a Safe Playground

Old or new, a playground isn’t safe unless it’s properly supervised, it’s designed to match the ages and abilities of the children who play there, it has adequate and appropriate surfacing, and it’s maintained regularly. After a new playground has been opened and the celebrations and community pride have faded, the work begins of making sure the environment remains safe. Without constant vigilance, a new playground can quickly become a dangerous place for children.

This is an excerpt from S.A.F.E. Play Areas: Creation, Maintenance, and Renovation.

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