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Play pockets offer physical, mental activities for kids, parents

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The days of simply riding on a merry-go-round and bouncing up and down on a teeter-toter are over.

Playgrounds have advanced.

Climbing walls with multicolored footholds subconsciously teach kids about colors, as well as right vs. left hands. Boards encourage them to identify a letter of the alphabet and then find something on the playground that starts with it.

Nature-inspired honeycombs and play pockets bring adults and kids together to learn.

Community planners and playground designers have added educational aspects to recess and playtime. The hope is to prove playtime can work out your brain as well as your muscles.

“We want to find activities that were unique and that kids could get a learning experience from while they’re playing,” said Rob Taggart, Greenwood parks and recreation director.

The epicenter of the county’s inclusive and stimulating play areas is Independence Park. Opened in 2000, the Center Grove area park is designed to be inclusive to all children.

Children play with gears and musical boards to work on their senses of touch and hearing.

A board lists the alphabet, with a corresponding letters in Braille beneath each one. At the bottom of the sign, kids can learn the Braille expression for “I feel good.”

In a special sensory section, children bang on marimbas, karimbas and drums to make their own music.

It was the state’s first fully handicap-accessible playground and has since expanded to include special sensory areas for kids with autism.

But later this summer, Greenwood park officials hope to take educational play to a new level. Craig Park will feature a series of “play pockets” that mimic forms from nature and teach people about animals and plants. The idea is to get parents and children together when they play.

“When you think of a typical playground, the parents go and sit on the bench, and the kids go off and play. But on these types of play trails, you’ll see adults and kids all playing together,” said Anne-Marie Spencer, spokeswoman for PlayCore, which manufacturers the play pockets. “They’re climbing on them and interacting and out there together.”

A bee-themed pocket will feature kid-sized honeycombs. They can crawl through a tunnel shaped like a caterpillar and twirl in a chrysalis spinning machine to illustrate the life cycle of a butterfly.

A stand of plastic trees offer footholds that kids can hoist themselves up on, while placards teach how plants help clean and filter the air.

“All are based on actual flora and fauna that have been researched for us,” Spencer said. “We wanted the facts to be so cool and interesting to a kid that he takes them to school and talks to his friends.”

Even though the new equipment at Craig Park won’t be installed until this summer, Greenwood parks have already made it a priority to blend basic learning principles with playtime.

The new equipment at City Center Park is wheelchair accessible and inclusive to all kids, including sling-style swings, ramps, paths, plastic bongo drums and a tic-tac-toe game.

The main playground at Craig Park, with its hanging bars, climbing ramps and twisting slides, is ringed by an educational trail. On placards set up every

20 yards, children and their parents can play a game that works on basic education skills.

A hopscotch pad lets them count to 10, while a signboard instructs them on the names of numbers in English, Spanish, Japanese and Punjabi.

The alphabet painted on the sidewalk allows kids to practice their ABC’s.

“Kids can step on them, spell out their names, find things in their environment that begin with that letter,” said Dawn Underwood, who helped install the trail as coordinator for the Community Alliances Promoting Education. “You can learn so much in everyday experiences.”

The Craig Park play pockets will not replace anything but will enhance the existing playground area. They will be arranged near a shelter across from the community center, which hopefully will stimulate interest in it as well as set the stage for a new network of trails in the park, Taggart said.

“We were trying to find some kind of activity that was unique that kids could get some learning experience from and use that area more,” he said. “This was a good fit.”

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