Playgrounds much more than swings, slides today

2014-02-22T22:30:00Z 2014-02-23T10:11:08Z Playgrounds much more than swings, slides todayBy Phil Wieland phil.wieland@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352 nwitimes.com
February 22, 2014 10:30 pm  • 

ValPlayso: The Next Generation is not your grandfather's playground.

Playgrounds have evolved dramatically from the simple slides, swings, monkey bars and seesaws of the post-World War II baby boomers' years to the million-dollar modular marvel being planned for Valparaiso's next generation of youngsters.

It will replace the original ValPlayso built 20 years ago.

The slides, swings, monkey bars and seesaws are still there, but they have changed. The material they are made of has changed, the support structure has changed and even the surface beneath them has changed.

Early baby boomers probably remember playing on gravel, asphalt or concrete. Easy to maintain, but not very forgiving to land on, even if you landed on your feet. The equipment was usually shiny metal, which was sturdy but equally unforgiving, and it tended to radiate the sun's heat almost like a branding iron on any bare flesh that might touch it.

Playground equipment began to evolve in the late 1960s, a change Tom Sanders of Parkreation Inc., in Valparaiso, said was brought about by lawsuits resulting from injuries and the general notion that schools needed to take more responsibility for what happened to children on the playground.

The first step was the development of what was called the post and deck style of vertical posts with platforms mounted on them at different heights. The swings, slides and monkey bars, soon to be called overhead climbers, were attached to these modular units.

Most of it was done in wood, but the slides were stainless steel and the climbing apparatus had prefabricated metal components. By the early 1970s, playgrounds had become themed, said Dan Downey, sales representative for Miracle Midwest.

Themes started during the peak of the space age of the 1960s, with playgrounds built around a rocket ship. These evolved into playgrounds built around an agricultural or sports theme, such as a baseball field. The surface changed to something with a little give to it, like pea gravel or sand.

By the '80s and '90s, playgrounds became more colorful with the introduction of powder coated steel, and the decks were made of vinyl coated metal.

"A lot of plastics were integrated with the play panels with rotationally molded slides in different shapes," Downey said.

The pea gravel and sand are also gone because the evolution of the playground had become a revolution as the playground equipment industry began to include designs for children with disabilities. Pea gravel and sand were not user-friendly for a child in a wheelchair or other mobility-assisting devices.

"Another big thing is the importance of safety surfacing," Downey said. "A lot of people focus on the equipment itself, but the standards have a whole section on the surfacing, and it's something we have to incorporate in our design. Most accidents and injuries don't happen on the equipment. It's falling to the surface."

That resulted in what's called engineered wood fiber, a wood mulch base made specifically for the playground industry. It provides a kinder, gentler landing while still compacting enough to accommodate wheelchairs and such.

The other option is rubberized tiles or a poured-in-place rubber surface that's mixed like concrete and troweled into place below the entire playground set.

Another safety factor is shade.

"We see a lot of requests for creative roofs to help block the sun," Downey said. "For a lot of early childhood day care centers, it is a priority to protect the children from ultraviolet rays and the danger of skin cancer."

The equipment also has to be designed to eliminate the risk of "string entanglement" and head entrapment. The latter is reminiscent of the crib injuries and deaths of years past from youngster getting their heads caught between the side railings. Playground equipment design also takes that into consideration.

And there are those strings with pompoms and other decorative danglers on hats and other clothing that can get caught in cracks and corners and create a choking or other hazard. Downey said designs avoid that, and most clothing now is designed to break away.

Despite all the innovations that make it possible for ValPlayso to have a snow plow complete with its own snow drift, a dinosaur with a maze inside for kids to climb in and a volcano, swings are still very popular, and Valparaiso youngsters asked for plenty of tire swings.

Slides of various shapes and lengths are a winner along with the overhead climbers. The seesaws have evolved as one of the spring rides, and another playground staple of yore, the merry-go-round, hasn't lost its appeal — just its speed.

Downey said merry-go-rounds now are equipped with a governor to limit how fast they can go.

The ValPlayso design was created with the input of more than 4,000 city school children. So far, there seems to be no limit on what children can dream up when asked to design their own playground.

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