The jungle gym, the carousel, the monkey bars... Chances are that the mention of these playground staples brings up fond memories. But they may be memories your grandchildren will never get to share.
Some playground equipment and games are coming under fire from people who think they put children at risk of hurting their bodies and minds.
In school districts across the country, grade-school students are forbidden to play contact sports during recess. In Cheyenne, Wyo., and Spokane, Wash., the ban even includes the first playground game most children learn first: tag. And even on the playgrounds themselves, changes have been afoot that make any new parent wonder if his or her kids are skipping around in an alien landscape.
Gone are the gravel-carpeted, spidery, rusting metal constructs that the kids of the 1960s and 1970s hung, spun and jumped from. They've been replaced by rubber mats, foam-covered equipment, simplified forms and Day-Glo colors.
"If children are the most precious commodity we have, then we don't understand why people don't make the play areas safe for children to grow up on," said Donna Thompson of the National Program for Playground Safety, based in Cedar Falls, Iowa. "Getting hurt on a playground is not a rite of passage to be an adult."
According to the NPPS, founded by the University of Northern Iowa and partially funded by the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, a child is treated in an emergency room every two-and-a-half minutes because of a playground-related accident; 15 children die each year in an incident related to play. Each year, more than 200,000 children are hurt on playground equipment, with about three-fourths of those in public playgrounds.
Thompson said she thinks places without newer, safety-emphasized playgrounds "do not want to take the money and time to deal with the safety issues. They would rather use the money to do something else, and in the long haul, it's going to cost less to make the playgrounds safe than to go to court. I think it also shows that adults are more important than children."
And it's not just the equipment itself, according to some safety experts and those who decide what's allowed on the playground.
The government on Wednesday released a study that said playgrounds should have a shock-absorbent surface such as mulch or wood chips under the equipment, and said playground ladder rungs and guard rails should be spaced in such a fashion that children can't become trapped between them. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also said parents should look for exposed bolts, S hooks and other playground equipment hardware that can catch on children's clothing.
In the report, the government also encouraged parents to avoid buying clothing with hood and neck drawstrings that can catch on playground and other equipment, putting the wearer at risk of strangling.
Play that involves touching can also easily degenerate into aggressive physicality, some say — and those games that involve using other children as targets almost invite bullying.
The furor over dodgeball a couple years ago may have been good for a couple yucks from the likes of Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, but it's no laughing matter for the schools that still ban it, or for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education based in Reston, Va. Spokeswoman Paula Keyes Kun pointed out that the group's position — opposing dodgeball in physical education programs — hasn't changed.
"Dodgeball does provide a means of practicing some important physical skills — running, dodging, throwing, and catching. However, there are many activities that allow practice of these skills without using human targets or eliminating students from play," the NASPE official dodgeball position paper states.
"The students who are eliminated first in dodgeball are typically the ones who most need to be active and practice their skills. Many times these students are also the ones with the least amount of confidence in their physical abilities. Being targeted because they are the 'weaker' players, and being hit by a hard-thrown ball, does not help kids to develop confidence.
"Some kids may like it — the most skilled, the most confident. But many do not! Certainly not the student who gets hit hard in the stomach, head, or groin. And it is not appropriate to teach our children that you win by hurting others," it continues.
But others say the devotion to safety may be come at the price of losing some of childhood's magic.
"The newer playgrounds all look the same. It's boring, for kids and parents," said Mindy, a 33-year-old communications consultant and mother of two in Cincinnati, Ohio who asked that her last name not be used. "I've also noticed new signs at playgrounds that state the 'recommended age' for each playground. I guess cities need to protect themselves, but where have common sense and good judgment gone? It's an unfortunate reflection of a sue-happy society where parents are more concerned with the 'what-ifs' when they should be concentrating more on supervising their children."
But Kenny Kramm, a Bethesda, Md. businessman and father, said it wasn't that simple.
Kramm said it's not always simply a matter of parents paying better attention on playgrounds. He and his wife founded Hadley's Parks Inc., which worked to make playgrounds across the country safer and more accessible to handicapped children.
"Safer playgrounds aren't an excuse for parents to be lazy," he said. "But I don't think there are many parents who, when they go to a park, actually go on the equipment with the children and take the fall with them. These things may seem minute, but when it happens to your family, it's not minute. It's not good parenting to say kids will be kids."
And Thompson said nostalgia for a parent's own childhood isn't an argument against doing everything possible to make today's playgrounds safer.
"It's like saying, 'When I was growing up, we didn't use seatbelts and I survived,'" she said. "Well, we know that seatbelts have made things a lot safer. The logic is ridiculous."
Jay E. Noffsinger, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, said playground accidents aren't as epidemic as some may be led to believe.
"More often than not, the injuries come not from playgrounds but things kids do on their own, like inline skating, skateboards," he said. "Injuries on playgrounds would not be the majority of injuries in doctor's offices around the country."
And those parents and groups who overemphasize playground safety, he said, may actually be doing more harm than good by scaring their children from playing at all.
"The much bigger problem in this country is sedentarianism and not being active, and though I would be in favor of people looking at making playgrounds safer, there may be an overemphasis on that rather than the fact that we need to be having more of them and encouraging physical participation with kids in any activity we can get them into," Noffsinger said.
"We need to be encouraging physical activity in any form, rather than legislating rules about the safety thereof."
Tom Norquist, president of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association based in Harrisburg, Pa., agreed. Playgrounds are safer than ever, he said, but that's meaningless if kids aren't developing their brains through play.
"Playground safety is only one cog of the wheel when it comes to a good playground environment," he said.
"Right now the focus is on safety, and it really needs to be the developmental value of play. We need to get more playgrounds out there and more opportunities for kids to play, and have them meet industry compliance and safety guidelines, but not shun kids away from them because of the safety guidelines."