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Building the Better Playground

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Tom Jambor couldn't quite find what he was looking for in a preschool for his two young children when he moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to teach early-childhood development at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 1975. So he teamed up with a colleague to convert a rezoned house into an early-childhood center grounded in the philosophy of the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who stressed the importance of movement and play in children's early learning.

To balance the cognitive skills children were practicing indoors, Jambor planned an outdoor play space that would enhance their physical and social growth as well. Dusting off skills he picked up studying drafting in high school and designing substations for the Wisconsin Electric Power Company before he went on to college, he blended trees, tires, sand, and other pliable materials to erect a swinging, swaying, running, jumping, and climbing paradise.

That feat--plus a three-story treehouse he built for his own children--earned him an unsolicited position as the chairman of a committee to build a playground at his son's first elementary school, which became the prototype for the more than 100 playgrounds Jambor has created in the years since.

Although most of the playgrounds are in Alabama, Jambor spent a year designing some with a colleague in Norway and has worked in several other countries as well.

A child's need for safe, fun, and physically challenging play, his travels have taught him, is truly universal.

"A good playground balances all aspects of development,'' says Jambor, an energetic, wiry 51-year-old with curly brown hair who admits that the "kid'' in him delights as much in playing on as in planning out playgrounds. Besides stimulating muscles and motor skills, he says, an appropriate play space allows children to work out "a tremendous amount of social orientation, language development, problem-solving, decisionmaking, and conflict.''

Jambor's playgrounds offer "different points of entry'' for children at all ages and stages of development. No matter what their country or culture, he says, children will "enter the playground at their own level and modulate to the next level of challenge.''

"There is a flow pattern: They play hard, practice, and then move on to something else,'' he says.

Contoured for Safety

Jambor's play spaces, which dot the yards of schools, churches, and recreation sites throughout Alabama, are esthetically arranged to complement and capitalize on "the contours of nature.'' They intertwine ropes, railroad ties, and tires of all sizes, some slung from trees swing-style and others linked side by side or heaped into climbable sculptures.

Beams, bars, poles, and panels of differing heights and textures also provide variety and adventure while developing muscular and upper-body strength. Labyrinthian playhouses, besides summoning a make-believe world of castles and forts, offer ideal wall-scaling or the chance to commune quietly in the crawlspaces.

Some children survey the scene in bands or pairs, while others find privacy in their own cozy niches.

But no one stays put for long; there are too many places and spaces to run up, over, and around.

With this much latitude for bravura, the fact that children seldom get hurt on these playgrounds is no accident.

Jambor, who with two physician colleagues has written a playground-safety manual that is being reprinted and promoted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, studiously shuns the flaws of steel-and-concrete playgrounds that spawn countless childhood injuries.

"Children are at the mercy of the environments we provide, and it is our responsibility, as custodial adults, to provide the safest environment possible in which to play,'' the safety manual states.

Each year, 200,000 children are hurt badly enough on playgrounds to warrant medical attention, it notes, and such accidents, on average, cause one child death a month.

One mistake schools often make, Jambor says, is to purchase one or two expensive "stand alone'' playsets with several attractive features that draw most children to the same spot, setting the stage for collisions and falls.

Jambor avoids this by spreading activities out "to disseminate children over a very large area.''

To buffer the impact of falls, he cushions the area with multiple layers of soft, resilient materials such as pea gravel, pine bark, and sand.

Other precautions include sanding abrasive surfaces and coating chain links with plastic so that children won't catch and jam their fingers.

Risks and Challenges

The safety manual advises against merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters because they pose undue risks with "little developmental value.'' But Jambor's play spaces do incorporate swings, slides, and climbing units that are in good condition and have been outfitted with such safety features as enclosures, more secure anchoring, and soft ground cover.

The manual offers guidelines on appropriate heights and construction of various items, and Jambor is adamant about the need for constant adult supervision.

At the same time, he seeks to balance the moral and legal obligations of professionals to insure playground safety with the child's need to "extend the boundaries.''

"As we offer protections to our children through regulations and guidelines for playground design, we must remember that the playground is for the child, and that the child will play there only if his/her developmental needs can be addressed,'' Jambor wrote in a 1988 article for the American Association for the Child's Right to Play. The group is the U.S. affiliate of an international association of child-serving and architectural professionals of which Jambor is past president.

"If it's a boring place, they will find exciting things to do''--like fight, Jambor observes.

Boredom doesn't appear to be much of a problem for the 2nd graders squealing and smiling as they breeze from one piece of equipment to another on the playground at the Hewitt Elementary School in Trussville.

"This is the highlight of their day,'' says Donna Walsh, one of the teachers standing watch. On the old playground, "they would stand around at recess without much to do,'' she recalls. "Now, when they come in, they'll be ready to learn.''

"They don't fight nearly as much'' because there's "always something to do,'' says Jill Harris, a 1st-grade teacher supervising at another playground at Clay Elementary School. "They get some good exercise, and they play hard the whole time.''

"There is a wider variety of exercise, and kids are spread out over more equipment,'' Principal David Foster adds.

"Even on weekends, my kids want to come to this playground,'' says Sandra Vernon, an administrative aide at the Hewitt school who was the chairwoman of the committee that built the playground.

Like a 'Barn Raising'

To help save schools money and generate enthusiasm among citizens, Jambor has developed a "community build'' strategy designed to capture "the spirit of an old-fashioned barn raising.''

Although he lays out the specifications, Jambor's chief role is to set in motion a well-organized process for schools and parent-teacher associations to enlist community involvement in all aspects of playground planning. Every detail is orchestrated leading up to construction, most of which takes place over one weekend when everyone works side by side with shovels and gloves.

Playground committees range in size from 50 to 250 members and include teachers, parents, administrators, students, retired citizens, community leaders, and businesspeople. They are intergenerational and inclusive, pooling the talents of the elderly as well as youths who are "drifting away from the norm of what is socially acceptable,'' Jambor explains.

The committee is subdivided into teams responsible for materials and machinery, structure, budget (an ideal slot for retired bookkeepers and aspiring mathematics majors, Jambor notes), publicity, safety, and refreshments, which include breakfast, cookout-style lunches, and snacks on the construction date.

Through connections in the community, committees typically wind up getting many materials they need either free or at cost.

"The response was incredible--the only thing we purchased was pea gravel,'' notes Vernon, who says local firms pitched in lumber, tires, rope, bulldozers--even hamburger buns and ketchup in abundance for the Hewitt playground project.

The average cost of these projects is $7,000, well under the $50,000 Jambor estimates a comparable commercial playground would cost.

The community's involvement also reduces the risk of vandalism, Jambor says, because people who share ownership will "take issue'' with would-be intruders.

But he stresses that everyone involved "has got to buy into a maintenance plan'' to keep the playground running smoothly.

People at each site must be assigned to monitor grounds regularly with a checklist noting structural deterioration or defects, Jambor says, and principals, teachers, and students should all play a role in checking for safety hazards and litter.

"If you use kids as inspectors, you will get real accurate reports--they're in every nook and cranny,'' Jambor remarks.

Jambor acknowledges that drumming up support and resources in depressed city neighborhoods can be a more daunting task, and he sympathizes with schools in areas where random violence jeopardizes outdoor play.

But buildings could be more creatively designed to enclose and cordon off play spaces, he maintains, and, too often, "rather than put in a good outdoor environment or renovate and maintain it, [people] dismiss it and say it's too dangerous.''

Don't Dismiss Recess

As an associate professor at the university, Jambor sometimes involves his child-development students in designing model play environments. An important part of the exercise, he says, is to encourage "reflection of their own experiences growing up.''

A pleasant and vital part of that experience, Jambor fears, is being lost as schools cut down on time allotted to recess.

"With kids being confined inside and increasing use of electronics,'' he reflects, "children are not passing on the traditional rhymes and games'' that are a joyful part of childhood.

"Children need to burn off excess energy to balance their mental and their physical selves,'' adds Jambor, who gets a kick out of helping them do just that.

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