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PROFILE // LOUIS BOWERS

Director of USF's School of Physical Education, Wellness and Sport Studies and children's playground designer.

PLAYGROUNDS FOR EVERYONE

What started out as a three-year research grant has turned into a lifetime of building safer playgrounds. In 1974, Louis Bowers began to look for ways disabled children could play with other children. "It grew out of a concern from observing that children that had disabilities were never seen on school playgrounds. A lot of parents of children with disabilities would call me and say "Why can't my child play on this equipment?' " Bowers realized that the traditional standard playground, which usually consisted of slides, seesaws, swings, merry-go-rounds and monkey bars, was not well designed for any child. "As a means of looking at what special needs some children had, I really kind of stumbled on what all children need _ a different kind of play environment."

KIDS INFLUENCE DESIGN

Bowers, 59, whose main job at USF is preparing elementary and secondary physical education teachers, has designed more than 80 playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area and abroad. His playgrounds on the University of South Florida's Tampacampus are at the Education Research Center for Child Development, Florida Mental Health Institute and H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. Bowers said his children partly were responsible for involving him in making the future safer for other children. "My initial interest was sparked by having four children and taking them to the park and recognizing that I was always the spotter under the slide, the monkey bars, or whatever, ready to catch them in case they fell. It seemed to me there should be a better way for children to play and develop without risking injury."

SAFE AND FUN

The same year Bowers began researching how to build a better playground, the first national survey of emergency room injuries was reported to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. It found that 74,000 accidents requiring emergency room treatment occurred while children were on playground equipment. "It intrigued me that 68 percent to 70 percent of the injuries each year resulted in children falling from equipment and landing either on the ground or on other equipment. So as I sought to design an accessible playground, the one thing that I did was eliminate the vertical fall, which in some cases was 10 feet." A 12-inch maximum fall and a soft landing surface for preschool children on playgrounds are commission recommendations, Bowers said.

PLAYING ON FILM

Bowers and other members of the research staff developed a film titled Places to Play in 1976 to compare the play behavior of children on the specially designed playground to the traditional playground. The film was later converted to videotape and has been nationally distributed. It also has been sought in Russia, Peru, and Brazil.Places to Play shows the difficulties disabled children encounter trying to climb a few steps or access a playground while in a wheelchair. One scene shows disabled and able-bodied children climbing, crawling and sliding on one of Bower's playgrounds. The wide slides that accommodate two-way traffic, carpet-covered gentle slopes, rope netting and full- and half-tube slides are played on by a mix of children. Once there, children don't need their wheelchairs to play successfully, the film says.

BOTTOM LINE: THE KIDS

The playgrounds are built from pine and are partly carpeted, and employ plastic tubes and slides. "The difficulty with metal, stainless-steel slides is the burn factor (in Florida)." Bowers also specifies high-quality wood with rounded corners. The typical lifespan of his playgrounds is five to 10 years. His playgrounds are modular and can be disassembled and moved to another site _ which is handy. He gets letters, notes, cards and drawings from children about his playgrounds. Preschoolers send drawings that show them playing on the equipment. The feedback from the children makes it all worthwhile, Bowers said. "That is what it is all about. You can design whatever you want, but the bottom line is, will children use it in a very creative way, enjoy it, and at the same time be safe in what they do."

COST OF CUSTOM DESIGN

When he takes on a project, Bowers visits the site to survey the available area and seeks ideas from teachers and parents. He also likes to know the age and number of children who will be using the play area. Each playground is designed to suit the needs of the institution. Although Bowers is a full-time university faculty member, he continues to work on playgrounds, doing much of the work for free. "I view it as part of my professional service to schools, to preschool centers. . . . My basic rule is that I don't charge non-profit groups that are doing it just for the children." However, Bowers cautioned that people often misunderstand the idea of a "free" playground design. The actual building of the play center can be expensive. Typically, a playground costs between $4,500 for a small unit and up to $15,000 for a large unit, Bowers said. Also, Bowers charges corporations and other for-profit groups for the design, which can cost $600 for a small unit and up to $1,200 for a more complicated, custom playground.

_ KATHLEEN LANG

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