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The brave new world of play!

Chris Hambrick

On a warm and sunny Wednesday afternoon I meet Curt Wear at Lincoln Square Park in Oakland’s Chinatown. Wear is the President of Community Playgrounds, and he builds and installs playground equipment in parks like this one.

He says this playground looks very different from when he first started in the business. What he describes takes me down memory lane to when I was a child in the mid-seventies.

Credit Chris Hambrick
Lincoln Playground in Oakland's Chinatown

"It was pretty much a steel monkey bar, which is a horizontal ladder, a jungle gym climber, which was a conical shaped climber,” and he says, “usually a framed swing set."

My childhood playground looked just like this.

On Saturday mornings after cereal and cartoons, my reward for a long, hard week of multiplication tables and sentence diagramming WAS spending the day at the playground. I would run straight to the metal rocket slide, race my friends to the top of the monkey bars, and work up my nerve to jump off the swing. I would get into the highest possible position before launching myself into the air. Even back then, everyday should be like this.

Around the same time I was flying from the swings. Curt Wear was joining in the creative playgrounds movement with a group called People at Play.

"We would get together with the most crazy array of materials -- recycled telephone poles from PG&E, rubber tires, chain bolts, we'd actually buy some new lumber to make the decking, we used cable reels, we used any kind of recycled 55 gallon drums,” he says. “We'd have the bottoms and the tops cut off and have the edges rolled and make tunnel slides out of them and it was a crazy scene."

Wear says the trick was figuring out how to put those things together. "Well, we started building these wood play structures and there was people seeing this happen and they were thinking wow, I can make a wooden play structure and manufacture it and make it modular.”

Wear says they were changing the paradigm of playground design. But it wasn’t long before another paradigm shift took place.

A wave of reports showed children were being injured on playgrounds in large numbers. In 1977 alone, approximately 93,000 injuries were associated with playground equipment nationwide. So, in 1981, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission released a set of safety guidelines for designing and installing playgrounds.

According to Susan Goltsman, a play environment designer in Berkeley, "it really evolved out of people getting sued quite a bit because there was no standard of care."

Goltsman has been in business of play for 34 years. She helped hone the guidelines used by play professionals today. She says America’s playgrounds had some serious issues back then. One problem was the wood used to build them. “Wood became very important in play equipment and in the 70's” she says. “It was treated with a wood preservative, which turned out to be carcinogenic, and so we changed that."

Carcinogenic preservative was only part of the problem. Falls were the number cause of injury on playgrounds. Forty-four percent of all playground accidents were the result of falls.

Goltsman says a new spongy surface had to be developed to make sure that there was adequate shock absorption when kids fall on the ground. "You can use the thing called wood fiber, not mulch, wood fiber, there’s a difference, and you can use rubber and that's about all you can use in a play environment if you're gonna have a fall area."

And remember those fancy sky high, all metal slides? Playground builder Curt Wear says those were dangerous. So they too, were out.

"They get hot, that's probably the biggest reason,” Wear says. “You can imagine in Texas or Arizona and a steel slide out there, even a plastic slide will get hot but a steel slide will give a child second degree burns very quickly."

Many pieces of equipment were removed: Seesaws were required to have springs, swing heights were lowered, and designs in general were softened. Playgrounds changed.

But all these changes beg the question: What is a child supposed to get out of a playground besides fun?

Dr. Lori Kaplan is a child psychologist. She says playgrounds serve a larger purpose in childhood development. "We want to promote the physical, social, and emotional and cognitive development of children,” she says. “Playgrounds do that by encouraging the gross motor development and the sensory motor development."

I meet Kaplan at Franklin Playground in Alameda. It has a (mix of standard equipment -- like swings -- and some of the newer designs. I point to a contraption in the corner near the fence, which seems just plain confusing.

Credit Chris Hambrick
A "spica" at Doyle Hollis Park in Emeryville.

  It's best described as a curvy pole sticking out of a circular platform that is positioned about one foot off the ground. Even though there are lots of kids around, nobody’s using this particular piece of equipment. It makes me wonder, what’s the point of all this new playground stuff if no one knows how to use it?

Kaplan explains that it is meant to engage kids. They are supposed to “touch it, look at it, manipulate it and use their problem solving and say, 'does this thing move or is it stationary?' Oh it moves!” she says. “So it utilizes their cognitive development in figuring things out and problem solving.”

This playground ticks all the boxes, but what about its personality? It is hard for me to believe that the same children will have the same nostalgia that I have for my childhood playgrounds. Designer Susan Goltsman says she is working on fixing that. She Is starting to incorporate the history of the neighborhood into her future designs, trying to create safe playgrounds with more character.

Back in her Berkeley office she shows me one of her newer projects.

"What we're looking at is at Hal Brown Park in Marin and we're looking right at Mount Tamalpais and in front of Mount Tamalpais, we put in a manufactured net climber that is in the same shape as Mount Tamalpais.”

I’m glad my future children will have exciting play environments to explore like I did when I was growing up. In the meantime, now that I know what some of this new stuff is all about, I am definitely going to explore the heck out of it.  

For my last stop, I visit Emeryville’s Doyle Hollis Park with playground builder Curt Wear. I take a good look at the curvy pole contraption with the platform. It turns out this new piece of equipment has a name: It’s called a spica. I decide to give it a chance to impress me. Wear shows me how to use it and after a few spins, I am completely converted.

Wear says I need to visit the playground more often. I think I will do just that.  

This piece originally aired on 03/03/2015