Loudoun County’s public schools have strict rules when it comes to playgrounds: no swings, no seesaws, and definitely no merry-go-rounds.
Now the School Board is debating whether to lighten up a little.
The school system has never had a policy in writing that details what type of equipment is allowed and not allowed on campuses, but staff members have set in-house rules to guide elementary schools when choosing playground sets.
“This has been a standard practice for more than 20 years and it initiated from a recommendation from our insurance company,” Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Kevin Lewis said of the equipment height restrictions and the ban on swings, seesaws and merry-go-rounds.
While the School Board works on a formal policy that will detail what will be allowed, some members are weighing whether they could loosen restrictions.
Debbie Rose (Algonkian), who sits on the Student Support and Services Committee that’s been working on the policy, said she wants to see fewer restrictions. She said at the board’s June 26 meeting that people worry kids will swing as high as they can and jump off.
“I have fond memories of that happening as a kid and it’s just awesome. And if you do get hurt, you learn a lesson,” she said. “I have been in these meetings pushing for as much fun as we can have on our playgrounds, as much of it has been un-fun for a lot of years.”
“I’m all about the most fun we can have,” Beth Huck (At Large) added. She said that her homeowners association approved swings in its neighborhood playground. “As someone who broke her ankle as a kid getting off the couch … I understand that accidents happen but they can happen anywhere.”
The county parks, operated by Loudoun County Parks, Recreation and Community Services, also allows “single plane” swings, seesaws with a spring that limits the trajectory, and a merry-go-round equipped with a “slow-down” mechanism to control its speed, Lewis said. A single plane swing is one with a seat and two cables, as opposed to a multi-access swing like a tire swing.
Tom Marshall (Leesburg) pointed out, “Leesburg has gone so far as to have a skate park, and that’s more dangerous than having swings on a playground.”
Joy Maloney (Broad Run) said she’ll likely propose an amendment to the proposed policy at the board’s next meeting Aug. 14. She pointed out that the language being considered now says that swings, seesaws and merry-go-rounds are not permitted on Loudoun school playgrounds “due to common inappropriate use and associated injuries.”
Maloney, who chairs the Student Support and Services Committee, said she requested data to back up that sentence, but staff members couldn’t provide it. Lewis said it’s hard to track down data that shows injuries are more likely on that equipment in part because fewer school playgrounds and public parks allow them.
One of the goals set out in the proposed policy is to build an all-inclusive playground on a school campus in each of the eight planning areas. Right now, there are two in the county—at Discovery Elementary School in Ashburn and Sycolin Creek Elementary just south of Leesburg—designed for children of all physical abilities, including those living with physical limitations. Those cost between $150,000 and $175,000, while a standard playground costs about $75,000.
“We won’t be able to do them at every school, that’s a lot of money, but at least we can move toward putting one in every planning district,” Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said. “So if you live in that area, you may not attend that school, but you could take your kid on the weekend.”
The school division has traditionally left it up to parent-teacher organizations to purchase playground equipment, which meant most new schools were without a playground for the first two or three years while parents drummed up donations. In 2015, the School Board voted to change that. Now, a playground is built and funded as part of a school’s overall construction; it’s part of the total price tag for a building project and funded through bond money.