Moments on the playground are often vivid childhood
memories: the pungent smell of fresh mulch beneath
feet, the squeak of bare legs on a slide, tennis shoes
gripping a metal ladder, pauses for breath after a game of
Though most public playgrounds in Chicago were in fair
condition, impoverished neighborhoods with a higher
population of children had playgrounds with more
equipment and surface problems, according to a study
in the February issue of Pediatrics. Due to age, many
playgrounds need to be replaced, but there are
less expensive ways for the Chicago Park District to
improve playground quality.
"In a dense urban environment like Chicago, it's really
important to have outdoor spaces for kids to play in,"
said Dr. Karen Sheehan,a pediatrician at Ann
Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital and professor of pediatrics
at Northwestern University Feinberg School of
Medicine. "It's incredibly important for development.
The ladder from a slide lets them look at the world
from a different perspective, and sand helps with fine motor
The Chicago Park District worked with Lurie Childen's
Hospital and Friends of the Parks, a non-profit, park
preservation organization, to evaluate almost 500
parks in the city from 2009 to 2011. Playgrounds were assessed
in four main categories: age-appropriate design, fall
surfacing, which is the surface underneath the
playground equipment, equipment maintenance and
Erma Tranter, president of Friends of the Parks and coauthor
of the study, said most of the findings were
consistent with what she has found in almost 10 years
of studying playgrounds across the city through a Kohl's Cares
For Kids Safety Network grant.
"They are heavily used in our neighborhoods," she said. "In
the poorer neighborhoods, there are fewer resources.
There are no ballet classes or taekwondo [Korean
martial art], so the playground is the place for
The study found the most common problem involved fall zones, where
wood chips used as the foundation for the playground
became compacted from children playing. In some cases,
the asphalt from before the parks were constructed had
started showing through.
"It's not equipment that causes so much of the trouble," Sheehan
said. "We usually see injuries due to falls, so the
surfacing is so important to get more adequate
Between 1988 and 1993, 500 public playgrounds were built in
Chicago. The average life of a playground is about 15 to
20 years, so many of the playground systems need to be
replaced. The problem, said Tranter, is the expense of
replacing an entire playground.
"In '88 to '93, [the park district] was capable of building 100 a
year, and now they are trying to do 25," Tranter said.
"We are looking at what kind of system we could put in
place that would allow them to do more a year."
The Chicago Park District was called for comment on future plans
for playground improvement, but did not respond by
Sheehan said she was impressed with how willing the park district
has been to improve playgrounds, but she wants to make
sure the playgrounds are improved based on need in the
"We saw dramatic improvements-some are older and need to be
replaced-but they were very responsive, which is
great," she said. "What we need to do more of is bring
in different sectors together."
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