A Place to Play

April 1, 2007
No matter the level of education, all students need places that offer a break from the classroom.

Whether it's a bunch of elementary school students watching the clock when they should be doing their school work or a group of college students cramming for a final exam, one thing is common among all students no matter their age — sometimes they just need to play.

Both schools and universities require recreation areas that offer down time for their students.

School day play

The playground is part of many students' school day, and sometimes the learning environment on the playground can be just as important as that in the classroom. Studies have shown that playtime can provide not only physical benefits, but also emotional, social and cognitive benefits to students. During playtime, students can stay fit, learn self-control and compromise, enliven their imaginations, enhance independent thinking, develop self-confidence, and experience accomplishment by conquering physical challenges.

Playgrounds should be safe places where children can engage themselves and challenge the mind, as well as the body, says Grace Fielder, president of G.E. Fielder & Associates (Columbia, Md.), who has been designing playgrounds for more than 30 years.

“Child play is child work, and what you learn at play is something that you take with you,” says Fielder. “It's where you build your confidence and learn to focus, and it's where you get an opportunity to learn things in a very different fashion.”

Clemyjontri Park in McLean, Va., is a play place that physically challenges children and engages them in educational activities. The inclusionary playground was designed primarily for children with disabilities and provides many accessible solutions that accommodate the use of wheelchairs, walkers and braces. It includes swings with high backs, armrests and special safety features; safety surfacing that makes it easier for wheelchairs to move through the play area; lower monkey bars; and wider openings for easier access to play equipment.

The playground also has themed areas that allow all children to interact with one another. The schoolhouse and wheelchair-accessible maze with multiple solutions offer educational games about geography, time zones and clocks. Signage features pictures, patterns, Braille, sign language and English in order to communicate to all children, including those that are blind, color blind or have dyslexia. The playground also provides opportunities for children with autism.

The transportation area includes accessible play equipment in the form of a helicopter, fire engine and wheelchair drag strip. One of the park's most popular items is the fully accessible carousel.

“The idea behind it is to make the playground engage children so that abilities and disabilities tend to be blurred,” says Fielder.

When designing the playground, Fielder consulted with teachers and special-education experts for ideas about what types of educational elements should be included. As a result, the playground uses repetitive learning methods and communicates on a variety of levels.

Rainbow arches help children understand color through repetitive learning. Each arch is a different color, and a sign explains the meaning of ROY G. BIV in Braille, sign language and English. This activity is followed by nearby swings of different colors.

The surfacing is poured in place and also repeats the colors. The colors then are repeated at the schoolhouse in different ways, including a color wheel and shapes.

Repetitive learning teaches children that red is a color because it matches one of the rainbow arches, one of the swings, a portion of the pavement, as well as activities in the schoolhouse, says Fielder.

“Not only is Clemyjontri about colors and motions, but children are physically engaged in the learning activity,” she says.

Students enjoy the multiple activities and equipment offered on school playgrounds, but for parents and administrators, safety is one of the biggest concerns. Proper design and planning can eliminate some of the potential hazards found on playgrounds.

The design of a play area should lend itself to proper supervision. Play equipment and activity areas should be positioned without visual barriers so that there are clear sightlines everywhere on the playground, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's “Handbook for Public Playground Safety.”

Choosing proper play equipment is another factor in safe playground design. A first-grader has different play needs and abilities than a sixth-grader. For schools that serve multiple grades, the handbook recommends, “the layout of pathways and the landscaping of the playground should show the distinct areas for the different age groups.” Schools can use trees and shrubs to create a buffer zone to separate play areas for different types of play equipment.

The “Handbook for Public Playground Safety” and other documents on playground safety are available on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's website: www.cpsc.gov/CPSCPUB/PUBS/playpubs.html.

Sun exposure is another potential safety threat on school playgrounds. Students can suffer from harmful UV rays penetrating their skin, or they can be burned by play equipment that has become too hot from sitting in direct sunlight. To avoid these risks, trees and other shading devices can be planned into the design of a playground area for sun protection.

Franklin Forest Elementary School in LaGrange, Ga., faced the dilemma of playground shading after it opened in 2005. Site preparation for the school had included clear cutting, with sparse landscaping provided for the campus. This left two playgrounds without much shading, says Janet Johnson, principal.

“The playgrounds receive direct sunlight during the majority of the day, resulting in the play equipment getting very heated in the beginning and ending months of school,” says Johnson.

The school now is in the process of a pilot program called “Making the Shade” that introduced trees to the school's playgrounds. The project is a collaboration of the Troup County School System, the Georgia Forestry Commission and Milliken.

The climate, rate of growth and color of leaves all were considerations when selecting what trees would be planted at the school, says Johnson.

“It was important that the trees be fast-growing in order to provide shade for our play areas as soon as possible,” she says.

The school selected 16 Dura-Heat River Burch trees, which will have a mature height of about 40 feet, and eight Nuttal Oak trees, which will have a mature height of about 60 feet. The trees now are about 12 feet high.

For schools with playgrounds that see much direct sunlight, it is best to avoid sending students outside to play during times when UV rays are the strongest. Peak sun intensity hours are between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. standard time (11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daylight saving time), according to the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS). If possible, schools should schedule recess for early morning or late afternoon to avoid these peak times.

Big kids

Elementary and middle school students aren't the only ones that need time away from their textbooks. College students also need places to relax and stay fit. More than 75 percent of college and university students report using the recreational sports programs at their campuses, according to the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has recreational offerings for almost every level of athleticism. For those interested in intramurals and group recreational activities, it has a field area called the Complex, which offers four lighted softball diamonds, a soccer field, a rugby pitch and a lacrosse field. It also has the Outdoor Center, which features four lighted football fields, two lighted soccer fields, three lighted sand volleyball courts, three lighted basketball courts, an inline rink and six lighted tennis courts.

The Illini Grove is a picnic area on campus where students can have a cookout, relax by themselves and read books, take a walk or compete in a tennis match. The area features a shelter, picnic tables, grills, a basketball court, a pond and eight lighted tennis courts.

For students that want an adventurous weekend getaway, the university has the Outdoor Adventures program that helps students set up day trips, extended trips and clinics to hike at state parks, canoe or kayak streams and lakes, or cross-country ski during snowy winter months.

High school students often consider campus recreational programs such as this when making their decision about which college or university to attend.

“There really is an arms race for students, and the facilities are a big part of that,” says Christopher Haupt, senior vice president of sports architecture at L. Robert Kimball & Associates (Pittsburgh). “So we're always trying to create designs to enhance the quality of student life with an eye on recruiting.”

The Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pa., recently added a fitness center to its historic gymnasium building, Recreation Hall, which previously served the varsity basketball and wrestling programs. The basketball program was moved to a new building, and the wrestling spaces were renovated to create a dedicated wrestling complex that includes training rooms, locker rooms and a player lounge.

The 20,000-square-foot fitness facility has a club-type atmosphere with abundant natural light and views, and two large-screen TV monitors. The facility satisfies the need for an additional fitness center on the west side of the campus, in addition to the main fitness facility in the south-center of campus. This is an example of an emerging trend toward having multiple recreation areas on campus for student convenience, says Haupt.

“Instead of one big hub-type facility, particularly on large Big 10 or other big conference school campuses with 20,000 students, you're going to find more decentralization of those types of buildings so that it's more convenient for students,” says Haupt. “So whatever quadrant of campus they happen to be in, they can get a workout in between classes or on their way back to the dorm or off-campus housing.”

For schools and universities, playgrounds and recreation areas mean two different things. In one setting, the playground can be used as an extension of the classroom to help young students develop cognitive and social skills. In another, building a “playground” for college students means big business for higher-education institutions. But students of all ages seem to blur the two together into one vision: a place to play.

Hall, associate editor, can be reached at [email protected].

Playing it safe

To help ensure safe play areas, the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) has developed a S.A.F.E. checklist that school administrators can use to assess the safety of their playgrounds:

  • Supervision

    An onlooker often can spot potential hazards that children may not be aware of, such as strings on clothing or ropes used for play that can be harmful if caught on play equipment.

  • Age-appropriate equipment

    Students of different ages need equipment appropriate for their size, skills and abilities.

  • Falls to the surface are cushioned

    Play places should have impact-resistant materials and offer cushions such as fiber/mulch, pea gravel or synthetic materials such as rubber mats or tiles to help prevent injury. Surfaces to avoid include concrete, asphalt, grass, blacktop, packed dirt and rocks.

  • Equipment is safe

    Play equipment should be checked routinely to make sure it is installed properly, that there are no missing or damaged parts, and that there are no gaps or protruding pieces that can cause injury.



Percentage of college and university students that report using the recreational sports programs at their campuses.
Source: National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association

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