The attention being given to the problem of childhood obesity has placed greater emphasis on students' eating more healthful diets and getting more exercise.

"Children need 60 minutes of play with moderate to vigorous activity every day to grow up to a healthy weight," says the federal government's "Let's Move" initiative to encourage students to exercise more often.

For schools, that means providing students not only with physical-education classes, but also with playgrounds where children on recess or before or after the school day can get a break from studies and get some physical activity in a non-structured setting.

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), based at the University of Northern Iowa, has a four-step national action plan for playgrounds: provide proper playground supervision; design age-appropriate playgrounds; provide proper surfacing under and around equipment; and keep equipment properly maintained. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) Public Safety Handbook covers similar recommendations.

Supervision

Adults should always be present when children are playing at a school playground. Administrators should make sure that playgrounds are adequately staffed during school recess periods. Some schools may rely on parent volunteers to help monitor playgrounds. The NPPS says that adults supervising a playground anticipate preventable problems and hazardous situations; stay alert and attentive; and remain present whenever children are on the playground.

Because all playgrounds present some challenge and because children can be expected to use equipment in unintended and unanticipated ways, adult supervision is highly recommended," the CPSC guide says.

Age Appropriate

Playground planners should select age-appropriate equipment and separate play areas for different age groups: 6 months through 23 months; ages 2 to 5; and 5 to 12. These areas should be marked by signage indicating the age-appropriate areas.

For children 6 months through 23 months, the playground should have areas where children can crawl, stand and walk.

For ages 2 to 5, the NPPS says, appropriate play areas could include: areas to crawl; low platforms with multiple access such as ramps and ladders; ramps with pieces attached for grasping; low tables for sand, water and manipulation of materials; tricycle paths with various textures; flexible spring rockers; sand areas with covers; and shorter slides (usually no taller than 4 feet). Some playground equipment that is not recommended for ages 2 to 5 are chain or cable walks; fulcrum seesaws; log rolls; track rides; swinging gates; free-standing arch climbers; free-standing climbing events with flexible components; overhead rings; parallel bars; long spiral slides with more than one 360-degree turn and vertical sliding poles.

For ages 5 to 12, some developmentally appropriate play areas for school-age children are rope or chain climbers on angles; climbing pieces; horizontal bars; cooperative pieces such as tire swings, slides and sliding poles; and open spaces to run and play ball.

The CPSC recommends that public parks should not offer trampolines, swinging gates, giant stride swings, climbing ropes that are not secured at both ends, heavy metal swings such as those shaped like animals, multiple-occupancy swings, rope swings and swinging dual exercise rings.