Lucas Mehl relentlessly spun around and around on a low-hanging rubber tire swing at Hillcrest School's playground.
Two miles southeast, Aaron Groene scrambled across Broken Arrow Park's metal castle and down its short slide polished to a shine by decades of use.
Both Lawrence children are 5 years old. Both were at popular community playgrounds. Both were deep into what kids do best -- discovering pure joy.
But the equipment upon which they played was worlds apart.
Ryan Gray Playground for All Children at Hillcrest, opened five years ago and built with more than $300,000 raised from private sources, is as close as Lawrence has come to perfection in the quest for safe, accessible playgrounds.
The portion of Broken Arrow maintained by Douglas County is the community's playground dinosaur. The most perilous pieces of hardware, a 27-foot-high rocket slide and a battery of heavy animal swings, have been removed from Broken Arrow. But equipment that the city would cut up and sell for scrap, and gear that the Lawrence school district wouldn't allow to be installed on public property, remains on county turf.
That's not astonishing to Bill Bell, the county's director of buildings and grounds. He suspects the castle slide that Groene found so fascinating should be hauled away.
``That's the one item that I'd like to get rid of first,'' Bell said. ``We just did repairs on it. It's a piece of aging equipment that's seen better days.''
That castle slide is surrounded by a geodome, which is a climbing contraption that looks like a bulging metal spider's web, and a merry-go-round, which spins on a center pivot while children cling to metal railings.
They're identical to devices city employees recently removed from city parks due to concerns about safety.
``I'd like to see the merry-go-round stay,'' Bell said.
Tom Wilkerson, the city's assistant director of Parks and Recreation, thinks otherwise.
``They are too dangerous,'' he said. ``It's so easy for a younger child to fly off those things.''
Each year in the United States more than 200,000 preschool and elementary school children visit emergency departments for care of injuries sustained on playground equipment. Three-fourths of these injuries occur at public playgrounds.
Thirty-five percent of all injuries are severe -- fractures, internal injuries, dislocations, amputations, crushes.
Each year, about 15 children die because of playground-related injuries. Half die of strangulation, while one-third perish of injuries that occur in falls.
These statistics so startled Donna Thompson that she helped establish the National Program for Playground Safety in 1995 with a grant from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
``Our major goal is to try to make playgrounds safer for our children,'' said Thompson, of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
She said improvements have been made in playground safety since NPPS was started. A key change was movement away from asphalt, concrete, dirt and grass surfaces.
Wider use of rubber materials, pea gravel and synthetic materials has helped to soften the blow for falling children.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal organization that reaches out to protect consumers through use of voluntary and mandatory standards, also jump-started the safety movement by developing national guidelines for playground equipment that have become the industry standards.
While these guidelines aren't compulsory, lawyers use the standards when involved with lawsuits resulting from playground accidents.
``They act like (the guidelines) are the Bible,'' Thompson said.
Local safety review
Recognizing potential liability issues, the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department recently evaluated all 27 playgrounds in city parks. That assessment will lead to improvements to all playgrounds, including removal of dated geodomes, merry-go-rounds and swing sets.
``In most cases, similar equipment will be installed to replace the equipment that has to be removed,'' said Mark Hecker, facilities maintenance supervisor for Parks and Recreation.
Some equipment -- merry-go-rounds, for example -- won't come back soon.
Hecker, a certified playground inspector, said safety guidelines recommend that merry-go-rounds have a speed control mechanism to restrict the rotation to 13 feet per second. Playground manufacturers have yet to build a speed-limiting device capable of handling heavy use in a city park.
``It is the feeling of city staff that merry-go-rounds should not be reinstalled in parks due to concerns over safety for the users and high maintenance costs,'' he said.
Wilkerson, the department's assistant director, said the evaluation detected exposed bolts in geodomes that could be dangerous to children with loose-fitting clothing.
``The problem was that a child could be hung if caught on one of those,'' he said.
Wilkerson said officials responsible for playgrounds in and around Lawrence ought to develop comprehensive playground inspection programs.
``I'd like to encourage not just the county but also the schools to do that,'' he said. ``There's a real danger, if we're not careful.''
Tom Bracciano, transportation safety supervisor for the school district, said inspecting playgrounds was the responsibility of the district's 18 elementary principals.
``We're probably not as comprehensive as the city, as far as going out to every piece of playground equipment,'' he said.
He said thousands of dollars of top-of-the-line playground equipment had been installed at schools in recent years. Much of that gear was paid for by parent-teacher organizations.
``Our playgrounds are safe,'' Bracciano said. ``I'm comfortable that all our playgrounds meet the consumer product safety requirements.''
Bell, the county's director of buildings and grounds, said there was little point to compiling a report about the county's side of Broken Arrow. There's no money in the budget to replace the park's old playground equipment, he said.
``This year, we'll grease them up and paint,'' he said.
Checking the pulse
Users of Lawrence area playgrounds -- especially children -- were full of ideas for improving these cherished spaces.
A class of St. John's School kindergartners in South Park suggested a few additions that would make their recesses spectacular.
``The swings are my favorite. More swings!'' said a boy with a gap-toothed grin.
``I miss the thing (geodome) we could crawl on,'' one girl said between licks on a red, white and blue ice pop. ``Is it coming back? They could build another.''
Her friend added: ``I like the twisting slide the best. Can we have more?''
Their teacher at St. John's, Cindy Fernz, said her students thoroughly enjoyed the park. There is plenty of shade under sprawling trees and a water fountain is positioned near the playground. Students feel safe, Fernz said, despite a heavy mix of people and animals in the park.
In Lyons Park north of the Kansas River, Theola Taylor of the Small Wonders day-care center cared for a half-dozen young children. They are drawn to the park's colorful climbing platform, she said.
A large bare spot nearby is a reminder that the park's toddler swings were removed by the city.
``I thought they were taking it away to paint it,'' Taylor said. ``We expected it to be back.''
Bob Arevalo, principal of Hillcrest School, said it would be nice if more of Lawrence's parks resembled Ryan Gray Playground. It was built in honor of Ryan Gray, who was born with a brain tumor and died in 1990.
``Kids know what they like,'' he said. ``This is probably the highest usage playground in the city.''
This playground at 1045 Hilltop was designed to be accessible to all children, including those who use wheelchairs or crutches. It has a padded playing surface, an elaborate climbing platform and unique swings and slides.
Kathy Mehl, pushing her son Lucas on a swing, said neighborhood parks -- city and school -- are an important venue for bringing communities together. Construction and maintenance of playgrounds should be high priorities, she said.
``It's a shame how all the kids don't have special swings and slides and other neat things to do.''
-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is email@example.com.