Playgrounds, Less Interesting Than Dirt

By Chris Kahn, Sun-Sentinel, Education Writer

Andrea Levin is grateful that Broward County schools care about her daughter's safety. But this year when they posted a sign that demanded "no running" on the playground, it seemed like overkill.

"I realize we want to keep kids from cracking their heads open," said Levin, whose daughter is a Gator Run Elementary fifth grader in Weston. "But there has to be a place where they can get out and run."

Broward's "Rules of the Playground" signs, bought from an equipment catalogue and displayed at all 137 elementary schools in the district, are just one of several steps taken to cut down on injuries and the lawsuits they inspire.

"It's too tight around the equipment to be running," said Safety Director Jerry Graziose, the Broward County official who ordered the signs. "Our job was to try to control it."

How about swings or those hand-pulled merry-go-rounds?
"Nope. They've got moving parts. Moving parts on equipment is the number one cause of injury on the playgrounds."

"Nope. That's moving too."

"Well, I have to be careful about animals" turning them into litter boxes.

Broward playgrounds aren't the only ones to avoid equipment that most adults remember. Swings, merry-go-rounds, teeter-totters and other old standards are vanishing from schools and parks around the country, according to the National Program for Playground Safety.

"Kids aren't using them the way they're supposed to," said the agency's director, Donna Thompson, who led a national effort to get rid of animal swings two years ago. "I'm pleased that a lot of these are disappearing."

In Miami-Dade County, public schools don't use a lot of traditional equipment, including swings and sandboxes. In Palm Beach County, some schools have swings, but they're no longer included on newer campuses because there's not enough space.

In their place, a lot of playgrounds now are inhabited with clusters of bright, multi-use contraptions with names like "Ed Center" and "Platform Climber Composite Structure." They're lower to the ground than their predecessors, coated with plastic and engineered for safety.

"We could do a lot more if we didn't have to watch our back every single second," said Graziose, who has led a playground safety committee for 17 years. "We sometimes get a letter from the attorney before we even get an accident report from the school."

Thanks, litigious busybodies! So, what do the kids think? The girls tried out the horizontal ladder and balance beam for a few minutes before settling on a game of stacking plate-size dirt chunks into a neat pile. "Making sand," explained Kristin Gonzalez, 6, as she crushed one in her hands and sprinkled the bits over the pile.

Bartleman, the only board member with children in elementary school, created a subcommittee this year to suggest ways to redesign school playgrounds. Safety is important, she said, but there's got to be a way to make Broward's playgrounds more interesting than dirt.

"I would have never thought about this until my daughter came up to me one day and said `Momma, I hate going to that playground,'" she said.

Hmm, and I wonder why kids are getting fatter? I mean, if they're NOT ALLOWED TO RUN ANYMORE. It seems like there might be a connection here . . .

The newest playgrounds are usually filled with equipment engineered in accordance with U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines. They might expose schools and parks to fewer lawsuits, but they're not as challenging as the previous generations of playgrounds, said Joe Frost, an emeritus professor at the University of Texas who runs its Play and Playgrounds Research Project.

"Play is one of children's chief vehicles for development," Frost said. "Right now it looks like we're developing a nation of wimps."

Say it ain't so, Joe.