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THE SAFETY ZONE

A New Generation of Playgrounds

November 16, 1998|STEVE CARNEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Kids take one look at that aging metal jungle gym at the local park and see an afternoon of adventure.

But many safety experts and parents see that same playground and worry about all the dangers it poses--from the hard steel bars to the unforgiving concrete ground covering.

Such concerns have resulted in a new generation of playground equipment that is safer and, advocates say, more stimulating for children. Cities and school districts across Orange County have installed the new equipment at parks and school playgrounds from Seal Beach to Santa Ana over the last decade.

Kids still skin their knees, but experts say they are less likely to suffer serious injuries.

"Kids get hurt no matter what," said Jon Golinger, a director at the California Public Interest Research Group, a consumer watchdog organization that studies playground safety. "But the question is: Can we keep injury to a bruise and avoid a broken arm or a cracked-open head?"

The latest equipment is made of soft woods as well as metal covered with a colored plastic coating. The materials are much more flexible than steel pipes, allowing designers to create unusual attractions. Some playgrounds now contain as many as five types of slides with waves, spirals and sharp angles.

New playgrounds also offer a wider variety of activities, such as cargo nets for climbing and "talk tubes" that allow children to communicate with each other from opposite ends of a playground.

The materials are softer and often are built on top of foam rubber or sandy surfaces, which serve as a cushion if children fall.

The conversion from the old metal jungle gyms has been slow in some areas because of lack of funding.

Indeed, a new study found that 85% of California playgrounds surveyed by California Public Interest Research Group have surfaces inadequate to cushion falls--the same figure as 1996.

Northwood Community Park in Irvine recently got its aging playground equipment refurbished--a year after the organization listed it as among the unsafe playgrounds it surveyed in Orange County in 1996.

Debra Mears, senior planner in the city's Community Services Department, said the changes came not because of the survey results but because officials decided the playground was simply too old.

An average of 15 children die every year nationwide in playground-related accidents, and about 150,000 require emergency-room treatment for playground injuries, according to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Those statistics make some parents think twice about letting their children use playgrounds at all. But a group of residents in Yorba Linda decided playgrounds benefit children--as long as they are safe.

So the community raised $150,000 to build a state-of-the-art playground at Box Canyon Park, which didn't have one. It opened recently to rave reviews.

"It could get to the point where we're so paranoid [that] no one will want to build anything," said resident Linda Thorp, who helped organize the effort. "It will just be grass out there."

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