Monday, July 17, 2006


one of my latest stories

A kid's paradise

Safe, accessible — playgrounds are changing with the times

Anna Boomsma (left) and her sister Cally hang from new playground equipment at in South Holland on June 23.

Tucker Boomsma sits on a new, safer version of the old monkey bars — a climbing web, at Veterans Park in south suburban South Holland, Ill.

There was a playground in south-suburban Flossmoor, Ill., that was a kid's paradise. Called "Timber Town," it had several wooden, fort-like structures connected by narrow gangplanks that sat four or five feet off the ground.

Further west, a park in Homewood was notable for its cable system, which allowed children to grab a trapeze and take a ride down the hill.

Another Homewood park sported a giant kite with two swings attached. Another landmark playground, this one in Chicago Heights, contained an enormous metal rocket ship structure with several tall slides emerging from it.

All are now gone, either replaced over the last two decades with smaller-scale plastic playground structures, or eradicated altogether. Along with those specific structures went most of the notable parks and playgrounds of the 1970s and '80s throughout the Southland.

These days, one has to look long and hard to find a tall, metal slide, or even a seesaw, relics of a time when kids didn't wear helmets and knee pads when riding bicycles, and got to ride in the front seat without car seats.

Jill Bartholomew, superintendent of recreation for the Homewood/Flossmoor Park District, has worked at the district for 26 years, and has watched as the parks of the past came tumbling down.

"Parks might not be like they used to be, but the equipment is now much safer," she said.

The tall metal slides that, when hot, could nearly take the skin off the backs of one's legs, she noted, and even swing sets that allowed children to strive to loop all the way over the top bar are things of the past.

"You can't do those things anymore," she said. "Safety plays a part in everything."

But, she said, though today's playgrounds may look like homogenized masses of plastic, similar to nearly every park in the region, there are a lot of distinctive properties to recently built parks.

She cited Patriots Park, on 187th Street in Homewood.

"It's got a circus theme," she said. "There are animal prints in the ground, and when a child steps on one, it makes that animal's noise."

Millennium Park on Western Avenue in Homewood has a "splash pad," where kids can run through an array of water features.

"There are at least one or two different playground features at each of our parks," Bartholomew said.

She said that accessibility has also played a role in replacing older playground equipment.

"In years past, a person with a wheelchair, or a grandparent wasn't able to play on the equipment," she said. "Now they too can play with everyone else, on low bridges and larger platforms."

Like Flossmoor's former Timber Town, Veterans Park on South Park Avenue in South Holland was once filled with wooden structures that dated back to the 1970s. But as of this spring, the old wooden playground was replaced with a new metal and plastic facility, making it one of the region's newest.

Wally Widelski, parks director for South Holland, said the new equipment is safer and will be easier to maintain. Plus, he said, it should be really fun.

One new playground structure in Veterans Park has 35 "play stations," not to be confused with Sony Playstations, which probably keep more kids away from parks in general. Rather, the stations are slides, swings, climbing areas and other features.

"There's a thing called the spider web that took the place of the old monkey bars," he said. "The spider web is more flexible. On the old monkey bars, if you lost your grip and fell, you ended up hitting all the bars below you and breaking your arm. On this, you'd roll down it into the rubber mulch."

Both Widelski and Bartholomew said playground surfaces have come a long way in the last two decades. Along with the old equipment went gravel and asphalt playground surfaces, and a lot of skinned knees along with them. Now, most playgrounds have wood or rubberized mulch at their bases, creating a soft and safe surface to absorb falls.

But while the old equipment continues to have fans among parents who frequented area parks when they were young, Widelski said maintenance became another issue.

"When some of the wood (in Veterans Park) would break or deteriorate, we couldn't get replacement parts," he said. "You have to be careful when you talk about manufacturing your own parts to fix things. So if things are deteriorating, we take it down and replace it.

"Why put a child in jeopardy? As a parent myself, I know safety is the first and foremost thing. I would never want anyone to be injured on any of our equipment."

To that end, not only is older park equipment replaced, but South Holland, Homewood/Flossmoor and most other park districts or departments regularly inspect the equipment.

Some tests are conducted weekly.

And while today's parents might have fond memories of the parks of yesteryear, Widelski and Bartholomew both said today's children are busily making their own memories. In fact, the newer parks in the area are drawing children not only away from their video games, but from other towns as well.

Homewood's splash pad has become such an attraction that there is now a small charge for participants who come from outside the district.

And in South Holland, Widelski said, it's not uncommon to find children from several towns away playing on the "spider web."

"I ride out there and talk to some of the parents," he said. "We've got a nice looking, shiny, clean, bright and safe destination."


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