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.

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