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Wednesday, January 19, 2000

Schools learning
to play it safe

Public school officials are
attending a conference on
improving playgrounds

One school that's ahead of the game

By Crystal Kua


If Hawaii's public school system begins planning properly now, it could become a leader in providing safe playgrounds that are fun and educational, experts say.

"It's not just for recess. It's your learning environment," Donna Thompson, founder and project director of the National Program for Playground Safety, told school representatives yesterday.

As officials look to replace old equipment, they need to correct past deficiencies that led to Hawaii receiving a "C-" in a national playground report card issued by the nonprofit group last year, she said.

But schools also need to know that playground planning involves more than just thumbing through a catalog and selecting apparatus that's attractive, Thompson and other officials said.

Thompson and her associates are in Honolulu to run a workshop for public schools planning new playgrounds.

A total of 265 representatives from 110 elementary schools across the state are participating in the conference. The first session was held yesterday and the second will be tomorrow.

It's the first time the Department of Education has brought schools together to plan playgrounds, department facilities chief Lester Chuck said. "We wanted to give schools the understanding that a playground is more than just equipment and more than just bringing in equipment."

The workshop is a way for schools to discuss the kinds of values, learning goals, equipment and safety considerations they would like to see in their playgrounds, Chuck said. "I think that's what we didn't do in the past."

Schools over the last year have been looking to replace or repair playground equipment that doesn't meet federal safety guidelines, a move that could cost tens of millions of dollars.

Thompson's organization last summer measured the safety of playground equipment in 31 states, including Hawaii.

The survey of equipment used in schools, parks and child-care centers looked at four factors: safety, age-appropriate design, surfacing to protect against falls and equipment maintenance.

"If all these aspects had been done here 20 years ago, you wouldn't have the crisis you have here," said Jean Schappet, a certified playground safety inspector with Thompson's organization. "But Hawaii is not the only place in the country."

Thompson said the grade for the nation as a whole was also a "C-" and that no state received an "A."

Hawaii's best grade came in the equipment maintenance category. Under that category, Hawaii received its only failing grade for not having equipment that was rust-free. "That's a big problem here."

Thompson said Hawaii also needs to post playground rules, provide more adult supervision, separate play areas by age, post signs for different age groups, put in directional signs and guardrails on equipment, ensure access by children with disabilities, and provide surfacing that is thick enough and covers enough area to prevent injuries from falls.

Schools also should consider playground equipment as a tool for learning -- not only in physical education but in math, science, art and other subjects, she said.

A tell-tale sign that improvements are needed comes when a child is injured while on a playground. "When a child gets hurt, it tells me a number of things failed to happen," Schappet said.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Enchanted Lake student Mark Maeda hangs out on
the overhead ladder at the school's new playground.
The wood fiber below helps cushion falls.

Campus ahead of game
with new equipment

Enchanted Lake Elementary School already has a new playground, compliant with safety regulations and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Principal Gail Awakuni said the decision to replace the old playground was twofold: Safety issues were a factor, but the school also was being retrofitted to be a barrier-free school for students with disabilities.

Parents and teachers got together, held fund-raisers for five years and ultimately built the $30,000 playground themselves last July.

The school was unable to get legislative funding for the project.

Since the groundbreaking, Awakuni said no playground injuries have been reported, although there was an incident of vandalism.

A committee of parents checks and maintains the new equipment.

Treena Shapiro, Star-Bulletin

E-mail to City Desk

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