Playing without pain


Injury-free playgrounds springing up around the city By Molly Noonan and Deborah Schlessinger :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

photo courtesy of Molly Noonan and Deborah Schlessinger Colleen Fuller, 71, is surrounded by some of the children who are benefiting from the new playground at Huckleberry Park in Woodlawn.

Sticks and stones may break kids' bones, but a playground shouldn't. Chicago now has two injury-free playgrounds. The traditional wood chips and gravel are gone, replaced with safer rubber surfacing. Broken jungle gyms and poorly designed play equipment are out, plastic fire trucks and tic-tac-toe boards in vibrant primary colors are in.

The Injury Free Coalition for Kids, a national group committed to preventing injuries to children, is working with local hospitals and community groups to build safer playgrounds in often overlooked city neighborhoods.

So far, there are only two Chicago parks but two more are in the works-none yet in the suburbs.

The newest is Huckleberry Park at 62nd Street and Kimbark Avenue in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the city's South Side. The first is at Orr High School's daycare center, 730 N. Pulaski Rd.

Construction on the Harold Washington Playlot Park, 5200 S. Hyde Park Blvd., will begin this summer. Plans are being made for a third one in Rogers Park.

Every year, more than 200,000 children are injured on America's playgrounds, according to the National Program for Playground Safety—that's one every 2½ minutes. From January 1990 to August 2000, there were 147 playground-related deaths involving children younger than 15.

While safer playgrounds make sense, getting them built is no walk in the park.

"This has been my life's work," says Colleen Fuller, 71, who has lived in Woodlawn for 43 years. Fuller, who is raising her two grandchildren, ages 11 and 15, is the driving force behind the organization that made the Huckleberry playlot a reality. "My dream was that parents could come sit together and watch their children play there in the afternoon," says Fuller.

The Allstate Foundation, through the coalition, provided a $60,000 grant for Huckleberry. The coalition chooses who will get grants with a survey that determines children's access to safe play areas. In 2001, Woodlawn was identified as the second-most dangerous neighborhood for children. Access to safe play areas in Chicago is a major concern. The Allstate Foundation's donation only pays for equipment and surfacing. Neighborhood residents are expected to provide the manpower to build the playground.

"You need to have a strong community willing to commit, a united voice and many partners," says Renee Chester, of the Friends of the Parks. "It's no small accomplishment. It usually takes three to five years to make it happen."

Joseph Strickland, who works in the coalition's University of Chicago office, says of the Woodlawn project, "It actually turned into an old-fashioned block party. About 150 folks showed up and we got the job done."

Workers arrived for the intense day of building on Sept. 20, 2003, but the glory was many years in the making.

According to Chester, building a park district playground costs from $250,000 to $400,000, including site preparation, assembly and the non-volunteer labor.

The Woodlawn playlot, once a hangout for vagrants and criminals, is now a haven for parents and their children, according to Strickland.

"I feel much safer here now," says Paris Battle, 11. "Before, I was afraid I would fall and get hurt on the wood chips." Says Rashon King, 7, "The fire truck is my favorite part."

"Every nice day brings them [children] out here," says Nancy Pirtle as she watches her two grandchildren play. "They need more communities like this."

For information about the Injury Free Coalition for Kids, call the Chicago office at (773) 834-7545.

Molly Noonan and Deborah Schlessinger are graduate students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Playing around Illinois: Is it safe? Playgrounds in Illinois, while not perfect, are safer than they were four years ago according to a recently released survey.

This year Illinois received a B+ overall, up from a C in 2000, according to the National Program for Playground Safety's second survey of the nation's playgrounds. The state fared much better than the nation's playgrounds, which this year got a C+, up from a C. And while things are getting better, both Illinois and the nation have room to improve.

"We'd like it to be that all children play on an A playground," says Heather Olsen, project coordinator for the program. "We understand that it takes time, but we need to do the small things that can ultimately save lives."

The organization, which is part of the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, rates playgrounds in parks, schools and childcare facilities in all 50 states, according to a specific set of criteria. Each state gets a separate grade and an overall one as well. Illinois' park playgrounds received the highest grade, A-, with school playgrounds getting a B+ and childcare playgrounds a B-. A lower grade for childcare playgrounds is common in many states, according to Olsen.

"A lot of times childcare centers are not choosing appropriate equipment. There's no overall plan, it's just a hodgepodge," she says.

The grades of more than 3,000 randomly chosen playgrounds are set on 24 different criteria. These are then divided into four categories, including whether rules are posted, if adults are present and if the design is age appropriate. The survey also tracks the equipment in each playground and its age. It's great criteria for parents to use at their local playground. Especially, if they want to push for improvements.

For information on playground safety and to use the playground safety report card yourself, visit the National Program for Playground Safety's Web site at Jennifer Mesich

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