There's nothing like the feeling of hanging upside-down from the top rung of the monkey bars. The world takes on a completely new perspective ... as do the metal bars that loom perilously close to your skull and dig into your back.
On a good day, the climb doesn't result in any scraped elbows or nasty bruises. But even on a bad day, boo-boos are all part of the playground experience. After all, monkey bars probably inspired the Band-Aid.But today's kids will probably never enjoy the exhilaration of a monkey-bar experience. The climbing jungle gyms are going the way of slingshots and lawn darts. Instead, new playgrounds are being constructed with pure safety in mind.
They're being built on safety surfaces - like rubber matting, sand or wood fiber - instead of asphalt. Instead of slides and swing sets and climbing bars that once soared as high as 15 or 20 feet, new equipment rarely goes over six or eight feet.
Though that means fewer tykes topple from the platforms of gigantic metal slides and fewer little fingers get caught under merry-go-rounds, playground injuries are still quite substantial. According to the Consumer Products Safety Division, 270,000 playground injuries are severe enough to require emergency room attention each year. Seventy percent of those injuries are due to falls.
That's why perhaps the biggest playground design concern today is the flooring under the play equipment. Playgrounds are required to have 8 to 12 inches of resilient flooring under their equipment.
"There is a tremendous move to get play equipment on a safety surface of some sort," says Ken Schneider, safety manager for the Hamilton County, Ohio, Park Board.
Since the early '90s, the board has specifically eliminated a number of metal climbers for safety reasons, says Schneider.
The biggest problem with the old-fashioned monkey bars were the bars inside the structure. If kids fell into the workings of the jungle gym, they could hit numerous metal bars while they fell.
"These days, you could still build a climber but you would eliminate the interior rungs ... and the new ones are typically not higher than six feet," says Teri Hendy, a design and safety consultant for the park and recreation industries.
"It used to be, kids would be bouncing from one rung to another all the way down."
Instead of eliminating specific kinds of equipment like monkey bars, designers now offer safety guidelines for each piece, says Ms. Hendy, who has helped develop those national guidelines for the past 14 years.
Instead of the old wooden seesaws on fulcrums, for example, the newer seesaws have springs in the middle and rubber tires under each end to lessen impact and subsequent back injuries and twisted ankles.
The seats of swings are now lightweight and flexible so when a kid jumps off and the seat swings into the path of another kid, the seat will absorb more of the impact than the kid. Swing sets are also limited to two swings between each set of support legs because often kids running to a middle swing would be struck by another swinger.
Though the height of the sets is not restricted, most park boards keep them low because of the large amount of protective surface required under the set. If a swing is 10-feet-tall, for example, at least 20 feet of flooring is required.
Slides - which once required what seemed to the timid to be a death-defying climb into the heavens before a swift, searing descent - are now rarely higher than eight feet and many are made of cooler plastic materials.
"A lot of people have gone to plastic because it's less expensive. Plastic is going to get as darn near hot as metal, but it doesn't retain the heat as long," says Ms. Hendy.
"Typically, they shade (the slide) or face it north."
In addition to designing playground equipment to be safer, manufacturers are designing it to be interactive.
"The biggest change is from independent pieces of equipment like a monkey bar that stands off by itself to these huge composite structures that have climbers and slides and sliding poles," says Ms. Hendy. "As an industry, we decided there was some value to children playing together. Linking play activities encourages social interactions."
The problem with children playing together on homogeneous, not-too-tall slides and swings anchored on safety surfaces is the imminent threat of boredom ... and disuse.
"In some ways, we have sterilized playgrounds and, as a designer, I try to bring a little more creativity and challenge back into the play environment," says Ms. Hendy. "We can eliminate the known hazards but we can't make them perfectly safe because kids are going to push the envelope. Once they become bored with a piece of play equipment, they try to invent new challenges. We can't protect a child from themselves."