Group works to restore playgrounds

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Group works to restore playgrounds

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Sehwa Children’s Park in Jungnang District, Seoul, once neglected (inset), was on the brink of being shut down but was restored through the collaborative efforts of Save the Children and the district office. Provided by Save the Children

On a recent afternoon, there were no children in sight at the playground in a local apartment complex in Jungnang District, Seoul. On the bridge of the jungle gym, a blanket was hanging to dry, and the chains of the swings were rolled up high to keep out of children’s reach.

The play area was shut down six months ago because it failed to pass a safety inspection.

Over the past half year, the apartment complex’s management office did nothing, citing that it had no funds to improve the safety of the playground’s equipment.

Some residents even argued that the land the playground occupied should be used for other purposes, such as a parking lot or a community center for the elderly. But the children in the apartment complex had different thoughts.

“We don’t like it because we don’t have a playground nearby our homes,” said a seven-year-old boy, surnamed Park. “I want to bring my friends here and play.”

An increasing number of playgrounds has been shut down since the government began safety inspections. According to the Ministry of Public Safety and Security, 981 out of 65,014 playgrounds nationwide have been shut down as of late May, a result of the government’s strict enforcement since January of the Act on Safety Management of Children’s Play Facilities, created in 2008.

At one point this year, more than 1,500 playgrounds were shut down, though some managed to reopen after making safety improvements. And yet, many are still left, without any efforts on repair work. The situation is particularly dire for apartment complexes with playground equipment. Of the 981 playgrounds that were shut down this year, 86.7 percent were inside apartment complexes.

But as more and more playgrounds have shut down, a number of nonprofit organizations have stepped in in an effort to rectify the situation. Save the Children launched the campaign, Save the Playground, in which it seeks to work with local autonomous governments to reopen playgrounds and conduct repairs.

In cooperation with the Jungnang District Office, the organization has remodeled the Sangbong and Sehwa children’s parks. After two months of construction, both reopened in June.

“The playground has different zones for different age groups, so it’s better for them to enjoy,” said Lee So-hee, a 37-year-old mother who visited Sangbong Children’s Park recently. “It’s safer and now there are public restrooms. We love it.”

Save the Children also started a program to create playgrounds in rural areas in collaboration with local governments. The group will oversee the operation of the facilities for the next two years.

The new playgrounds are currently being built in Euiseong County, North Gyeongsang; Yeongwol County, Gangwon; and Wanju County, North Jeolla. The first playground in Euiseong will open in mid-September.

In Wanju, 39 elementary school children in the county gathered to share their opinions on the playground and what they want. County Governor Park Seong-il attended the policy session.

Some of the children’s ideas were too creative to be realized ? such as having the playground connected to a slide coming out of a nearby apartment building ? but other ideas were more reasonable. The children also wanted brighter lights for the evening and clean restrooms.

“The school playground is just too far, but we don’t have anywhere to go near our houses,” said Oh Jae-yong, an 11-year-old boy. “So most of us just stay inside and play. We want to have a playground in our neighborhood we can visit easily and play safely in.”

During the session, Park expressed regret over not having done more for the county’s youngest residents.

“After listening to the children’s opinions, I felt guilty as an adult for having failed to provide the most basic of things to the children,” the governor said.

ChildFund Korea has largely focused its campaign on changing people’s attitudes toward playgrounds. It started a signature drive to protect local playgrounds and conducted a survey over the past two months concerning the playgrounds that were shut down.

According to the group, the survey showed that most of the playgrounds closed due to safety issues were located near low-income residential areas. The group added that the real issue is that current law requires the management of the playground - whether it is a public or private facility - to pay for repair costs.

The group said children from families with higher incomes are able to use alternate play facilities by paying fees at places like kids’ cafes and children’s museums, while local playgrounds tend to be the only resource for children from low-income families.

The group’s campaign has now shifted toward politicians and local governments. Rep. Jin Sun-mi, a member of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, along with 12 fellow lawmakers, has sponsored a bill to revise the law governing the safety management of children’s facilities. Under the revision, local governments would offer up repair costs for playgrounds, whether public or private.

Childfund Korea delivered 4,753 signatures to Rep. Jin, who promised her best to guarantee children’s right to play. Save the Children also asked lawmakers to ease current safety laws, under which playgrounds are required to shut down if just one item, such as a swing or see-saw, fails to pass inspection.

BY CHUNG JONG-HOON [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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