At Playgrounds, Heavy Metal Is Out, Gardening Is In

Recess may be on the wane at many schools, but that doesn't mean playground design is getting short shrift.

Selim Iltus, co-director of the Children's Environments Research Group at the City University of New York Graduate Center says that the disappearance of school playtime may actually enhance the role of the school playground. The playground needs to be looked at as "a community resource," he insists, and "not a place to be used for just 20 minutes during the school day."

Integration into the community is only one of the changes happening on playgrounds. "Complexity, variety, interactivity, mental activity" are the new focus, explains Paula Hewitt, director of the New York and New Jersey Playground Program of the Trust for Public Land. For Ms. Hewitt, that means a move toward gardening, green spaces, and chances for kids to play with natural elements such as sand and water.

Designers are beginning to look away from "a lot of heavy metal and plastic equipment," says Mr. Iltus, which "simply promote a gross-motor type of play." Instead, he says, there is more interest in creating areas that stimulate social activity and encourage kids to interact with their physical surroundings. European playgrounds, he notes, tend to be more creative than those in the United States because in Europe there is less fear of lawsuits. For instance, sandboxes are more often in evidence - in the US they're seen as too risky due to concerns of toxicity. In Germany, Iltus adds, playground designers have created water games in some playgrounds.

That's not to say standard equipment will disappear. "There are things kids always tell us that they want," Hewitt says. These include free-standing swings and merry-go-rounds. Merry-go-rounds fell out of favor temporarily because of safety concerns, Hewitt says, but they're back, equipped with speed controls and safety rails.

Allen Burton, associate professor of kinesiology and leisure studies at the University of Minnesota, says that since the 1980s, the trend has been toward swings, slides, and climbing equipment fitted into a single unit, and almost always designed in multicolored plastic-and-metal combos. Wood playgrounds have also become very popular.

The Americans with Disabilities Acts has also left its mark on the schoolyard, points out Phyllis Diehl, office manager for Marturano Recreation Company in Brick Town, N.J. Playgrounds built today must provide ground surface that's safe and wheelchair accessible. At least 25 percent of all equipment must also be wheelchair accessible.

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