Hawaii Playground Equipment Falling Apart - As Expected


Honolulu Advertiser, January 23, 2008

By: Eloise Aguiar

Playground equipment installed at dozens of public parks less than 10 years ago is deteriorating due to rust, corrosion and wear, and the lack of a comprehensive city maintenance program has left many of the structures with holes or broken pieces that residents say pose a safety hazard and can take months to repair.

Conditions at a small community park on Peterson Lane in Kalihi are typical of what parents and Honolulu's youngest citizens have to deal with at many parks.

A ladder is missing from the play structure, the soft flooring used to prevent injuries in the event of a fall has large ruts and the equipment is covered with graffiti.

Residents say the playground is popular with children, attracting as many as 20 on any given afternoon. But some parents no longer allow their kids on the playground because it's in such bad shape.

"There was a point when it was nice," said Justin Gonsalves, who used to take his nephew to the Peterson playground. He said the problem is that the city doesn't maintain the park. "I wish it could be nicer."

Dana Takahara-Dias, deputy director for the Department of Parks and Recreation, could not say how many repairs are backed up or give an overall assessment of the condition of the city's playground equipment.

Nevertheless, the city is aware of the problem and is taking steps to prevent further loss of its play equipment, Takahara-Dias said.

"Instead of waiting for it to break — when it's too late — we will be doing maintenance so it ensures a longer life," she said.

At the heart of the effort is a new system that would request money specifically for repairs and maintenance of individual play apparatus, Takahara-Dias said.

Takahara-Dias said the department has taken inventory of its play equipment and an ad hoc committee will categorize them according to their condition: needs no improvement, needs minimal improvement and needs major improvement.

It will then draw up a maintenance plan for its 218 play structures and will seek funding this year to start the work, she said.

"We're looking at having an islandwide plan shortly," Takahara-Dias said. "This is really exciting for us. It's the first time anyone has thought about doing this."

It could be awhile before residents see any change, though. It will be months before the money can be approved as part of the city budget process, and there's already a backlog of repairs.

The changes can't come soon enough for Kailua resident Gary Lockwood.
He said he lives near four parks and all the play equipment has problems including a sharp, rusty hole in the deck at Enchanted Lake Park, a broken viewing bubble and slide that are boarded up at Kailua District Park, holes in the resilient surface at Pohakupu Park and more rust at Ka'elepulu Park.

Lockwood, who has a 3-year-old son, said he's seen children climb up a broken slide and trip on the holes in the surface. He said he's made numerous complaints to the city and has had some results, but not all problems are being addressed.

"At Pohakupu Park it's not like we're in Hawai'i," he said. "It's like we're in a third-world country and it's a shame because the rest of the park is so beautiful."

The problem, said Andy Speese as he watched his two granddaughters at Pohakupu Park recently, is the city allows the equipment to break and then makes a budget request for it to get fixed.

One of the slides at the park was out of commission for so long that he can't remember, Speese said. It was finally fixed, but now plywood is being used to cover some rusty stairs.

"They don't have a fund for the replacement of equipment that breaks or gets vandalized," he said. "That's what they really need ... to fix things in a more timely manner."

Under the present system, when something needs repair, a work order is issued and money is used from the park's operations budget. Repairs will continue under this system until the new system is implemented.

The new system will designate money for repairs and maintenance, Takahara-Dias said.
"The neat thing is we're identifying these play apparatus that are good to go, that need special attention, that we must monitor more frequently," she said. "That's the maintenance plan to catch these things while we can still do basic repair as opposed to waiting until the problem gets so big the community will have to do without something."

The city decided to begin this effort after successfully addressing comfort station deterioration, Takahara-Dias said. Some 15 comfort stations have been renovated and the city has decided to turn its attention to play equipment in light of complaints and an understanding that maintenance will increase the life of the equipment.

Meanwhile, under a pilot project, new play structures will be coated with a sealant that should extend the life of the equipment. The city already uses the micro-guard on its newly renovated comfort stations and the results have been promising, Takahara-Dias said.

From 1999 to 2003 the city spent almost $8 million to remove unsafe play equipment and install new equipment at more than 110 city parks. The playgrounds included resilient playing surfaces and accessible pathways costing from less than $100,000 to $125,000 for each site.

Today, there are problems at parks across the island. In Kalihi, Salt Lake and at community parks on Beretania and Kalakaua in urban Honolulu, pieces of playground apparatus are missing and chunks of padding are gouged that could lead to falls.

Equipment in Sunset Beach and at Waimanalo and Nanakuli beach parks got so bad that structures had to be removed.

"It needed to be removed and now we're praying on our knees to get it back," said Patty Teruya, chairwoman for the Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board. "We used to have really nice park and playground equipment. It just rusted out."

City Council member Todd Apo said money has been approved for the replacement of several pieces of play equipment — including two for Wai'anae — but what the parks department is doing will help increase the life of playgrounds.

Apo said he will be working with the parks department to fund the maintenance program during budget discussions coming up in March.

A maintenance plan, however, doesn't cover the replacement of playground equipment, and while Wai'anae appears to be in line to get theirs, Waimanalo and Sunset Beach residents said they haven't heard any news about replacing play equipment that was removed about a year ago.

Comments Submitted January 23, 2008

Dear Ms. Aguiar,

I can’t say your article on the deterioration of playgrounds was unexpected. When I installed many of these units while working for an equipment sales rep (which is what a local playground company is) it was clear to us then that these units would not last.

These playgrounds were mostly built for parents not children. Playgrounds were once about the space equipment occupied such as hills, trees, paths, and proximity to chldren. Hawaii’s playgrounds are comprised of cookie-cutter units located in the worst places such as the middle of a sun drenched field. Very little thought went into the spending of millions of dollars other than to please the public that their tax dollars were busy at work creating safe play environmnets for their children. These units could go up quickly and demand increased as parents wanted a brand new structure just like the one in a neighboring community. Jeremy Harris on his campaign office in Chinatown had a huge poster of a newly installed playground covering his King Street windows. A lot of publicity went into creating new playgrounds but the rewards came in votes – not happy children.

Clearly, if children had been a central concern for creating new playgrounds we would have built better play spaces in addition to setting up a maintenance and an inspection program like most astute municipalities do. The old equipment was full of entrapments and lacked adequate surfacing – but there was never any evidence gathered that the new playgrounds had any impact on reducing the number or severity of injuries. Perhaps the bigger concern was liability, but most law suits are settled outside of court and the evidence of proper or improper use of playground safety quidelines is never addressed. Safety guidelines have also reduced equipment to a very basic structure which lacks challenge (often propelling kids to take unintended risks) and character. Gone are the rocket ships, the lunar landers, the long slides and the swings. In came generic structures with a dumbed-down play features that were built to last no more than ten years as opposed to the equipment they replaced which stood as long as thirty years. Maintenance can prolong the life of a structure to some degree, but it will not prevent decks from rusting out, plastic from cracking underneath a tropical sun, or keep rubber surfacing from being torn to pieces (surfacing usually cost more than the structure). When these parts break, they become a huge safety hazard which could certainly have been prevented and was foreseen – but when people are spending money and a lot of companies are making money – who cares.

Some playgrounds are successful, but these are place that had some unique character long before equipment was installed. Old Stadium Park, for instance, has trees, a undulating terrain, paths, climbing sculptures, and many other attributes that bring kids away from the equipment to engage in other activities. Equipment should be a secondary concern for a playground but today it is the only concern. The equipment that was built will continue to deteriorate and will need to be replaced within a few more years. I don’t believe it is too much to reinvest another 8 million on our playgrounds (we should be spending more), but I would hope the next time around that a concerted effort be made to give children better outdoor play opportunities rather than enlisting equipment reps and pencil pushers to do the job.

Outdoor play is important to instill in our children. As we witness the deterioration of our environment from a lack of open space to its ecological unfolding, it is vital to have children encounter their natural envionment so that they can value and preserve it. You can’t do this with playground equipment.


David Verbeck, Playsident

Why I Build Custom Playgrounds

Building custom playgrounds is a lonely task that only a few people throughout the US choose to specialize in. Perhaps we are all looking for some greater glory when we somehow get "discovered", but meanwhile it is a constant task of going against a popular flow of conformity that chooses profits over practical solutions.

I try my best to bring the best of outdoor play into a comprehensive plan that attempts to provide children a wider experience by giving them the opportunity to discover the world on their own terms. Increasingly, children are not able to have this freedom because their daily lives are a rush of calculated events based on the schedule of parents. How often are children allowed the time or access to discover their own neighborhood? Communities are no longer places of exchange but rather a place to sleep.

I often get calls from well meaning people who want to build backyard playgrounds which further isolates a child from the greatest element of play - having a friend. In a preschool environment, friendships are not built within the structured time of the classroom but instead they are best developed outside. Unfortunately, this "free" time is limited to one hour at most preschools and narrows to nearly nothing later on as they are bombarded with instruction to achieve higher test scores (contrary to what most child development experts support!).

Over ten years ago I left my ambitions to improve children's lives through the dissemination of information to a more direct approach. I realized that a statistic comparing the state of children from one community or country to another can influence change - but only if there are people available to make those changes. As an artist, I also shared an interest in the physicality of experience and change. I soon found myself inspecting playgrounds throughout NYC which provided me access to a whole array of neighborhoods and the common spaces that made them thrive. Following my first wife to Hawaii, I soon found myself building commercial, playground structures for a newly formed company called Pacific Recreation.

Eight years ago there were very few playground structures that were not either dilapidated or poorly designed (entrapments galore and no surfacing). Instead of using funds to improve the outdoor play spaces in a resourceful manner, the City and State opted to dot our schools and public parks with the same cookie, cutter structure. I was enthusiastic at first with my job as the leader of a crew of playground builders, but increasingly I became dismayed at the short sited approach which left very little to offer kids except the means to possibly "burn energy". I also realized that the structures we were erecting were not designed to last more than 10 years.

Most of our new playground structures in Hawaii were built on the premise of safety. It was believed that children were now safer and law suits were avoided because industry standards for playground safety were followed. Even on a national scale there is no evidence that the glut of manufactured products kids now play on has had any effect on the number or severity of accidents nor has there been a serious study to find out. I have performed some research in this area only to discover that the touted figure of 200,000 injuries yearly as reported by CPSC 14 years ago has some serious problems in the manner in which data was collected and computated. These same figures were used in the bible for playground safety which was widely supported by the growing playground industry.

Offered to us in the Handbook for Playground Safety (CPSC 1997) owners of playground equipment that did not strictly follow these guidelines were increasingly liable for accidents. Down came the prized playgrounds that people grew up with for the past thirty years ago which brought character to their neighborhood to be replaced by a prescribed and dumbed-down version of a playground. Regardless of following playground safety standards, lawsuits are still being filed but hardly ever brought to court since it is less costly to settle instead of going through the expense of hiring lawyers.

Having witnessed the foolishness that exemplifies playgrounds and the companies involved in selling them, I was interested in developing an alternative. Observing that there basically is no entry for creative design in our Hawaii public parks and school yards I turned to where play was at its prime in the youngest children who are not yet deterred by rules and regs. As I began working at preschools to create these types of environments, I also developed more of an understanding of how children are being contained within very confined borders - borders that do not allow children to fully explore themselves or their environment. I also was concerned that in putting together a plan, I might override their needs or interests as an adult who is many years removed from childhood.

The first playground I opened at First United Methodist Church was a great relief to me because I saw a very different pattern in their play. No longer were they occupied by the same activities, but they had more play outlets that they immediately began to explore. The trike path was not simply a round concrete sidewalk but was full of texture, had obstacles, a bridge and a tunnel. They don't seem to grow tired of it. I was relieved that I created something that they wanted and even more relieved when they could make the space work on their own without a whole lot of staff interaction/interference.

Opening a playground recently at Central Union playground was much the same. I did, however, hear the teaching staff with great reservation as to the safety of the playground as they collected in a small group out of reach of the children. While staff should not be too intrusive, they do need to be identified as the leaders of the playground. I told one staff person who was speaking of her reservations (eight months after the process of creating the space) that risk is a factor in play and it was part of her responsibility to identify where risk was too high and where it was acceptable (acceptable that there can be injury but on a minor level). Her response was that the parents would find it unacceptable that there was any risk what so ever. I suppose these would also be the parents who I see hovering over their children's every move at a public playground until the child is totally unprepared to take any risk. We learn often times by mistakes and what it means, for example, to trip over a root from a tree. Does that mean we remove the root? We should remove the root only if children are repeatedly getting injured and it is in such a spot that children just don't seem to be able to avoid it. Otherwise the occasional trip is a manageable risk that children can learn to avoid in the future. Besides, if we remove the root, the tree that it feeds may not provide the shade that protects children from the sun and keeps the area cool. Children adapt to a space and thoughtless intervention can create more problems - Hawaii State inspectors do this all of the time.

So playgrounds have a lot of aspects to them that people often do not acknowledge. It is to all of our benefit to look at playgrounds more comprehensively than just observing issues of safety which, to my way of thinking, is a bit convoluted to begin with. I suppose the complexity of these issues keeps me interested regardless of sunburns and back pain.

Commercializing Playgrounds in Hawaii

Playgrounds now are identified as large pieces of commercial equipment usually found without children playing on or near them - unless they have no choice, and like cattle, are corralled into a small play area during recess. There are no swings or other features that might make the area more interesting. Has anyone even considered landscaping or locating the equipment near shade? The mandate is very clear - get equipment and install it. Does anybody care whether the best interest of the kids is being served?

Look at some of the older playgrounds and witness how the layout - not the equipment influences how many children you will find there. Two examples are the Waialae and Old Stadium playgrounds. The playground equipment is a center of attention - but only because kids have several diversions to occupy their time with including stairs, paths, shaded area, etc. These aren't engineering or architectural marvels - but they work.

We are now seeing the new Hawaii DOE playgrounds in all of their cookie cutter glory. The equipment is well made but there is very little consideration to the age group that uses it or the preservation of safety that everyone seems to hold so dear. For instance there are two ground panels for toddlers or disabled children (loads of fun) and an overhead climber which if anyone ever did their homework on safety - they would soon discover that this feature is the leading cause of playground injuries. Its disturbing that after condemning all of the playgrounds that were in place prior to 1998, safety and recreation are not as great a concern compared to liability. There is a myth out there that if you have commercial play equipment that follows all of the CPSC guidelines - you are free from lawsuits. This has never been the case and a parent will sue if their child is injured. Claims are not able to be tallied since most settlements never even get to court. So it is a blind battle based on a premise of safety instituted by the playground industry that thrives off of such misperceptions. So what else can be done - this is where the discussion needs to begin.

Meanwhile, children are being raised by schools and not communities or their working parents. Their access to free-time and the outdoors is severely limited. I see children who step onto playgrounds for the first time at the age of five (just as the equipment sticker recommends) who are extremely vulnerable to injury because they have never taken a risk. Our society is changing and very little is done to give children an experience that at least replicates what they are denied - mainly the freedom to discover on their own.

Another issue regarding playgrounds has been ADA. Several contracts went out to Hawaii companies to build sidewalk accessibility for playgrounds. Recently I was passing the Kaimuki middle school playground on Waialae and saw how ludicrous this idea is. There is a sidewalk access on almost every inch of property creating trip hazards everywhere. Any thoughtful approach at creating a sidewalk for wheelchairs would not include a 6 to 8 inch drop at the edge. The Hawaii DOE has entirely ruined the play area and have done it a way that does not even comprehend what ADA requires. I suppose their motivation is compliance, but they really messed it up for the kids.

I could go on and on but it may be better to cut it here and simply ask you to write a story on this some day soon. All I really see coming out of the Newspapers is an assumption that building a playground (what ever it may be) is a good thing. Even though I support outdoor recreation, this use of public tax dollars would be better spent on teachers - at least until a better approach can be addressed.

Creating Custom Playground Work In A Manufactured World

The following is intended to open discussion over how to
survive being bullied by the commercial playground industry

Necessity for Playgrounds

Once upon a time, not so long ago, communities were our playgrounds where children could freely explore their environment under the watchful eyes of neighbors and family. The foundations of community are quickly disappearing and children are now presented with contained play areas as their only outdoor play experience.

  • 65% of households with children are working (including both parents and single parent households)
  • 63% of children under the age of five are in a regular daycare arrangement, 56% of them in non-relative care
  • 79% of the US population is living in urban areas

Manufactured Equipment as a Model for Playground Safety

It is a common perception that a playground is composed entirely of commercial equipment intended for physical outdoor recreation. Safety guidelines and industry standards keep the realm of possible play features narrow by placing undue liability on play features that do not succinctly follow them. Furthermore, the interpretation of these guidelines by insurance companies and state licensing agencies often results in a “one size fits-all” strategy which puts impossible limitations on anything that is not found in a playground catalog. The legitimacy of guidelines is also brought into question when:

  • There has been no follow-up study on whether safety guidelines have decreased the occurrences or types of injuries on playground equipment.
  • Strict adherence to safety guidelines often leads to the permanent removal of play equipment or ignoring real safety concerns due to the inability to pay for new equipment or surfacing.
  • Unquestioned legitimacy of guidelines to create “safe playgrounds” overshadows a greater need to concentrate on managed-risk methods to expose kids to their limitations.

    Customization of Playgrounds (discussion)

  • How does one introduce real-world experiences in a controlled play environment?
  • Is it possible to return to custom built playgrounds that predated the commercialization of play?
  • Can there be a symbiotic relationship between commercial equipment and custom play features?

The Thrill is Gone

The Intelligencer

The seesaws are gone from Doylestown's Burpee Park, and they won't be coming back, at least not in the same form.
The aging play equipment recently was removed because the boards were broken, snapped by vandals, borough manager John Davis said. Safety, though, also played a role in their removal.
“The way they were bracketed to the pivot, there was a pinch point,” Davis said. “We are going to replace them with more modern seesaws.”
“Modern” seesaws have springs in the middle to moderate their range of motion. That way, if one child suddenly gets off one end, the child on the other end isn't sent crashing to the ground.
In other words, the new seesaws will be “safe.”
But it is precisely that increased safety that a growing number of critics nationwide say is sucking the “play” out of the nation's playgrounds and forcing school-age children to look to skateboards and video games for excitement.
“There's no question that playground designs are dumbed down because of concerns about liability. They're full of slides that barely have any slide to them and seesaws that barely move,” said Franklin Stone of Common Good. “There is no question kids over age 8 think these playgrounds are dumb and just for little kids, so they either take their skateboard and go down the slide on it, or they sit home in front of the television set or video game. And there is no question that children getting out and using playgrounds is good for them and for society. So we need to find a better balance between safety and risk.”
With offices in New York and Washington, Common Good is a nonprofit group that believes many lawsuits have hurt society by leading people to make choices not out of common sense but out of fear of being sued.
And that's just what they say is happening on playgrounds here and across the country. Once-common equipment such as metal slides, seesaws and merry-go-rounds are vanishing. Oftentimes, they are replaced with smaller, lower, plastic versions, perfect for the 5 and under set.
On a recent day at Burpee Park, for example, 3-year-old Joseph Kearney and his 1-year-old brother Liam were having a ball.
“Slides and stairs for both of them,” said their mom, Dawn of Buckingham. “Anything climbing is big.”
But few older children could be found on that playground, or others in the area. Some critics think that's because the playground equipment is no longer attractive to kids that age.
Several reasons are driving the change, but chief among them is the fear of being sued if a child gets hurt.
Doylestown, for example, has not been sued often over playground injuries, Davis said, but it doesn't want to be. Like most towns, it follows guidelines from the National Playground Safety Institute and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“Certainly, the underlying issue is the safety of the kids. But the litigation situation has been a powerful incentive,” said Davis.
Marc Leathers, a custom playground designer who helped shape the castle playground in Doylestown's Central Park and a new one in Cheltenham, said he sees that all the time from clients.
“Right now, design takes a back seat to safety,” said Leathers, whose firm has been in the business since 1971. “Most schools and municipalities are making decisions based on liability. Thirty years ago, there weren't any standards. Now there are standards and guidelines, and they're very restrictive.”
The National Program for Playground Safety, a nonprofit interest group based in Iowa, began pushing for more safety standards after being formed in 1995. Today, a mixture of requirements and recommendations outline what playgrounds should look like, Leathers said.
But what everyone should keep in mind, Leathers said, is the difference between hazard and risk.
Hazards — exposed bolts, joints that could crush little fingers — should be eliminated. One positive result of new safety standards, for example, has been switching from building playgrounds over asphalt to a springy surface that reduces injuries from falls.
Risk, though, is different. Risk is vital to the success of playgrounds and to the development of a child, Leathers and Stone said. Playgrounds that offer opportunities for children to evaluate a situation and decide for themselves what to do are healthy, they argue.
“I think we may be going a little too far,” Leathers said. “Obviously, we want our kids to be safe out there. But playgrounds are learning centers, and part of that is for kids to have certain experiences and figure things out for themselves. And if kids don't do it on a playground, they grow up protected and don't know how to handle it later.”
No one wants a child to be seriously injured or even killed on a playground, Stone said. But tragic accidents are few and far between, and designing life to prevent all accidents is impossible.
“It's more than just playground risk,” she said. “It's a symptom of expecting our entire society to be risk-free, especially when it comes to our kids. As we try to make things safer and safer, other problems crop up. Keeping your kids safe at home, on the couch in front of the TV, has a lot of negative consequences.”
Some parents here already believe that.
Doyle Elementary School's Home and School Association began raising money last year to add to the school's playground, motivated mostly by a desire to get the kids interested in it again, said co-president Beth Darcy.
“Kids do play on it, but for some kids, there's just not much excitement out there,” said Darcy, who has a daughter in first grade and a son in second grade. “We felt like we needed to offer them some other activities, to inspire and excite kids to be active.”
Some of the playground's equipment is about 20 years old, said Darcy, who, at 37, said she remembers playing on it as a kid.
Some of the existing equipment will stay, but some of it, including a set of swings, will be removed to make way for the new piece to be installed this summer, Darcy said.
“The stuff we played on is considered unsafe now,” she said, “But I would bet money that the rates of injury for kids on playgrounds today is not much different than it was when I was a kid. If there're places to run and places to climb, kids are going to get hurt. And it's important to let them do that. Recess is so much more than just a break from the classroom. Kids are kids. They need to express themselves physically, challenge themselves.”

Sarah Larson can be reached at (215) 345-3187 or slarson@phillyBurbs.com.

Quick Guide to a Great Playground

  • Watch how children play and imitate their play habits through landscape, play features and activities.
  • Identify natural features in your existing play area and enhance them. Include a variety of natural textures, colors, and terrains.
  • Establish spaces where kids can be alone (reading area) or with friends (playhouse).
  • Realize that the outdoors is not simply for gross motor skill development or “burning energy”. The playground is an independent classroom where children apply what they know.
  • Include different ages in the same play group. Believe it or not, kids learn from kids!
  • Arm yourself with a copy of the US CPSC’s Handbook for Public Playground Safety (www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/325.pdf) to ward off unknowledgeable inspectors who invent safety guidelines on the spot.
  • Understand that safety has more do with protecting kids than avoiding law suits. Comply to safety guidelines, but where appropriate, use your best judgment (based on experience and common sense)
  • Read what child development research and experts have to say about outdoor play before listening to the advice of a local sales rep for a mainland manufacturer.
  • Conform to Change. Keep your outdoor space flexible and adjust to the growing needs of kids. An all encompassing quick fix out of a glossy playground catalog is expensive, permanent, and narrow minded.