A Green Way To Play

By Julie Inman

The trees that children used to climb freely in the woods a generation ago have since been replaced by manufactured playgrounds.


With this limited interaction to pure nature, how does one convey the importance of environmental responsibility? How does one begin to show kids what a large impact a little recycling and environmental thinking can do? What’s the best way to convert such a complex issue to the level of a preschooler?

The city of Safety Harbor in Florida and its recreation department have found one important way to make sustainable, healthy habits fun--an eco-friendly playground!

The city’s original recreation venue--the Rigsby Center--has had the same metal school-bus play structure with wood seats and ground-up tires for more than 15 years. It was time for a new playground. After a needs-assessment and an evaluation of other playgrounds throughout the city, it was determined the new playground would focus on preschool growth and development.

When Project Innovations proposed building a new age-appropriate playground with a lower environmental impact, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board could not resist. What better way to educate the citizens of tomorrow than through play?

The recreation center now offers a playground designed specifically for preschoolers, ages 2 to 5; it is made of 99.9-percent recycled plastic lumber posts and boards.

Earthscape Structures manufactured the playground from reclaimed post-consumer plastic products, which were cleaned and transformed into construction materials. The playground is brightly colored with many elements, including:

• Two slides

• Interactive panels

• A clubhouse with a kid-sized picnic table

• A lava climbing wall

• The only teeter bridge in town!

The playground is covered with a natural tree canopy that almost completely shades the structure, keeping the equipment cool even in the Florida sun.

It is completely fenced in with a child-safe latch on the gate. There are two benches within the fenced area as well as two outside the fence for adults.

The playground is more than a safe place to develop gross motor skills; it’s a place to grow minds, too. As the sign at the entrance states: “This playground was made from over 17,800 plastic containers.” That is over 4.5 tractor-trailers full of milk jugs.

The playground is a fun example to show kids how to create what is needed from something that already exists. Since children drink plenty of milk, what a simple message to teach kids--yesterday’s milk jug is today’s playground, and recycling can be fun. Best of all is that sustainable living can be simplified for even the youngest minds.

At what cost did the community obtain an eco-friendly playground?

Unlike the grocery store where the organic aisle often means the expensive aisle, the price tag on the playground was well aligned with competing bids. Overall, the cost was minimal compared to plastic ending up in waterways and landfills.

It is well-known that plastic is not bio-degradable, thus having an indefinite lifespan in landfills. Some critics argue plastic will not decompose for 500 years, while others predict 1,000 years. Sunlight eventually decomposes a plastic bag or makes it brittle enough to break into tiny fragments, but plastic--regardless of its size--continues to sit in the soil.


In waterways, bags are often mistaken for jellyfish and ingested by sea turtles and birds. Ultimately, pollution is hurting their populations.

Creating an eco-friendly playground not only is environmentally responsible, but teaches environmental responsibility and the importance of preserving common resources--all while encouraging healthy play.

Building a playground from recycled plastic bags, milk jugs, apple-juice bottles, plastic toy packaging, orange-juice bottles and other items familiar to children makes the concept of reuse tangible and clear, even for small children.

The children of Safety Harbor now have an entire playground and clubhouse, benches, picnic tables, and seating on the dock as a direct result of recycling.

Teaching children to reduce, reuse, and recycle today will eventually produce environmentally aware, fit adults tomorrow.

Julie Inman is the Recreation Facility Manager for the Rigsby Recreation Center. She can be reached via email at jinman@cityofsafetyharbor.com.