Traditional playgrounds going high-tech to fight obesity

It’s not the same as saving Earth from an invasion of aliens bent on world domination, but climbing the jungle gym at several local parks does offer something video games don’t — actual exercise.

Yet the challenge children’s playgrounds have had in attracting kids is first pulling them away from their Xbox or PlayStation.

So parks officials are starting to fight fire with fire.

Salt Lake County’s Evergreen Park is constructing a children’s electronic playground set that includes blinking lights, an LED controller and its own computer server to ignite the same senses in kids that video games do. The park at 3425 S. Evergreen Ave. (2230 East) is undergoing a complete renovation and opens in August.

Salt Lake County Parks & Recreation Project Manager Morgan Selph turned to Danish playground equipment manufacturer Kompan, which produces playsets that offer different electronic games built in to the climbing and spinning on the set.

Kompan is "realizing that kids aren’t going out to play because they’re home playing just on their video games. Now they’re even on their phones," said Selph. Kompan "saw the trend and is trying to get kids out to play. So it has designed this piece."

Evergreen Park has built two separate electronic playground sets, the Swirl, which has spinning bars that kids can grab, and the Nova, a spinning platform similar to a merry-go-round. The Swirl has a separate electronic controller that a child stands on and then chooses one of three games the other kids can play. In Colour Catch, for example, a child assigned to a different color must find a flashing button to press for points. In another game, Direction Correction, kids run on the Nova’s spinning merry-go-round and line up a yellow dot with a light display in the center. The games also record high scores like video games do.

"These are physically challenging games, and that’s what appeals to the older kids. And that’s the challenge — to get older kids back to the playgrounds," said Bob Ross, president of Salt Lake City-based Play Space Designs, which sold and installed the Kompan playground at Evergreen.

Using a computer server that’s housed in a box to the side of the playground, data about how many games are played, what the high scores are, even how many calories are burned per day, can instantly be transmitted to the Salt Lake County offices. The server also can remotely let maintenance workers know when something breaks down.

"And if they want new games, they can just send them wirelessly [to the playground], and that keeps them fresh," said Play Space Design’s Diana Ross.

Legacy Park in Layton was the first park in Utah to receive an electronic playground when it installed a Kompan set several years ago. And the new Mountview Park in Cottonwood Heights, which opened up two weeks ago, installed a new electronic playground set called NEOS from Pennsylvania-based Playground Systems.

The percentage of American children ages 6 years old to 11 years old who were obese grew from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 20 percent in 2008, according to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years.

Among preventive measures, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends to parents that children should not spend more than two hours per day on entertainment-related activities such as watching TV. Yet The Kaiser Family Foundation found that children and teens 8 to 18 years old spend more than 7.5 hours each day on entertainment media.

"Getting kids outside and doing stuff is so important," Selph said. "You can have fun outside. Video games are fun, but these kids aren’t having as much outdoor experience."

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