From the lobbies of fast-food restaurants to the back yards of day-care centers, the past decade has witnessed a national boom in playground construction.
But how good are these modern playgrounds? Experts fear the answer may be, not very, and they fret that the value of play in a public park or playground is being badly undervalued by parents.
''It's an awful situation,'' says Philip C. Myrick, manager of the Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit that studies urban parks. ''And most people aren't even aware of the possibilities that exist.''
Myrick and others complain that playgrounds have become unimaginative and boring. They believe there are too few playgrounds generally, and far too few good ones, particularly in the nation's urban centers.
Fears about safety, liability and rising costs caused many jurisdictions to close playgrounds in the '80s and '90s. And even those municipalities that have replaced old playgrounds have sometimes been too zealous in their pursuit of safety, critics claim.
''Kids aren't being challenged by new playgrounds because the challenge has been taken out,'' says Kevin Owens, chief designer for Playworld Systems, a Lewisburg, Pa., play equipment manufacturer. ''There are a lot of things battling against making playgrounds fun.''
Playground safety standards are set by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission and the American Society for Testing and Materials. While those national standards are voluntary (although a handful of states have actually mandated them, including California and Texas), most manufacturers adhere to them closely.
No one objects to safer playgrounds, of course, but when manufacturers merely make swings shorter, slides less steep and elevations lower, they make playgrounds less fun. And they don't necessarily make their playgrounds safer if children react to boring activities by using a playground improperly -- say, jumping off a 10-foot roof rather than a 2-foot platform.
''We could do a much better job in design,'' says Susan D. Hudson of the National Program for Playground Safety, a University of Northern Iowa-based nonprofit that serves as a national clearinghouse for playground safety information. ''Certainly you can design a safe playground that doesn't have high play value. That happens.''
The rise of organized sports has put playgrounds at a disadvantage, too. Parents are more inclined to lobby local government for ball fields than playgrounds, and it can strain recreation department budgets to accommodate both.
Meanwhile, suburban families are buying more expensive backyard play equipment, preferring to keep their children within reach than let them venture to a public park where they might come in contact with strangers.
''The middle class feel safer and more secure having their children in their own back yard,'' says Darrell Hammond, founder of KaBoom! -- a Washington-based agency that promotes playground development. ''Unfortunately, kids like to be in masses. They don't choose to be isolationist.''
Five years ago, Hammond founded KaBoom! to try to bring together people, community organizations and businesses to develop playgrounds. Today, the nonprofit organization has a Web site (www.kaboom.org) and offers tips and strategies to communities that want to build new playgrounds.
''Parents are so fed up with having no place for their children to play, they're banding together to raise money and volunteer their time,'' he says.
That's exactly what Nancy Castaldo did. The Harford County, Md., mother of two and test manager at Aberdeen Proving Ground was unimpressed with the local playgrounds when her children reached preschool age.
''They'd play for 15 or 20 minutes and get bored,'' she says. ''There didn't seem to be enough to do.''
With the help of about 100 families, she raised more than $100,000 to build the sprawling Rockfield Creative Playground, an outdoor amusement park made of wood and sweat equity alongside John Carroll High School in Bel Air.
Since its completion two years ago, the playground has been spectacularly successful -- on a warm Saturday or Sunday afternoon, rarely are spaces available in a playground parking lot that fits 165 cars.
''There's no question it's the best playground in Harford County and it's got to be among the best in the state,'' says Joe Pfaff, the county's director of parks and recreation.
But since the playground opened, no others like it have been planned or promoted for the greater Baltimore area. The chief reason: Not only was the project expensive to build, but maintenance on the wooden structure is labor intensive.
Without the continued involvement of volunteers like Castaldo's hundreds of supporters, it would be difficult for any town to afford.
Playground advocates admit that more playgrounds will be built only if people are willing to put their time and money behind them. Before that can happen, they argue, people need to understand the value of playgrounds.
Dr. Robin G. Chernoff, a pediatrician and director of the children's behavioral clinic at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, says playgrounds provide more for children than just exercise. They also give youngsters a chance to learn how to socialize, to overcome their fears, and to take pride in new skills.
''A good playground can give a child a sense of confidence and competence,'' says Chernoff, who finds them most critical for children 5 and under. ''Play is how children develop. It's their work in life.''
A better public playground needn't be huge, the critics charge. It would, however, feature creative ways to play that aren't necessarily more dangerous but are certainly more inspiring than much of what's being offered to children now.
Instead of a traditional slide, for instance, a playground might have a double slide to accommodate multiple users. A talk tube (a pipe through which children can converse) can encourage imaginative games. A balance beam doesn't have to be 4 feet off the ground, but it can challenge users if it zigs and zags.
''If we demanded that our public playgrounds be kept up as well as our public golf courses, we'd be in good shape,'' contends Hudson. ''For some reason, child's play isn't important to us and that has to change.''
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