LSU Develops Playgrounds into Biological Engineering Laboratories

Each year, more than 220,000 children are taken to the emergency room with playground-related injuries. In fact, it's the number two reason children visit the emergency room. Addressing playground safety is a national concern for the more than 61 million children under 14 years of age in the United States.

In addition to poorly designed and dangerously outdated playgrounds, many children don't have access to any outdoor play areas. This contributes to another national crisis — childhood obesity, which afflicts approximately 12.7 million children ages 2—19.

Guided by her belief that people can accomplish extraordinary things when they do ordinary things together, Dr. Marybeth Lima, Cliff & Nancy Spanier Alumni Professor at Louisiana State University’s College of Engineering, began the LSU Community Playground Project to address these issues and involve LSU students in changing their communities by increasing access to play spaces.

In the past 16 years Lima, a certified playground safety inspector, and her LSU biological engineering students have worked with communities to build safe, accessible playgrounds created by children in 29 locations, affecting more than 10,000 youth daily.

“Safety is at the core of playground design since the accident rate on playgrounds is so high,” said Lima. “LSU students must learn all playground safety guidelines and recommendations set forth in the CPSC (consumer product safety commission) Public Playground Safety Handbook. This handbook is based on ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards regarding playground safety. Once students start the design process, their blueprint has to be vetted and modified to be in compliance with playground safety and accessibility requirements.”

Lima and her students have discovered that wooden structures aren’t as durable as other materials, so they now use coated metal to increase the useful life of play equipment. Materials selection, layout, and placement of shade elements are carefully employed to control heat buildup on playgrounds. In regards to safe ground surfaces, all materials must comply with the latest standards of impact attenuation for playground safety surfacing, such as engineered wood fiber, which is the only wheelchair accessible loose fill surfacing.

Lima doesn't just look at playgrounds as a mechanism for kids to have fun, she transforms the areas into a biological engineering laboratory where each carefully designed piece of equipment immediately impacts every child who interacts with it.

“One of my earlier projects involved a schoolyard that had little equipment, including a rusty red gate that my students and I often referred to as the ‘gate to nowhere’,” said Lima. “Then we found out that the teachers tapped into the children’s imagination and used the gate as a launch pad for them to pretend they could go anywhere in the universe. We realized that what we had been calling the gate to nowhere was actually the kids’ ‘portal to anywhere.’ The gate was the children’s favorite equipment on the playground, and was a testament to the teachers’ commitment for making the most of the equipment that they had. After a substantial renovation to the grounds, the children had all new equipment, except for the gate. We made sure to keep that, because the children still love their ‘portal to anywhere’.”

To integrate play into the engineering solution, Lima advanced her initiative beyond design to co-author a popular play curriculum text. Play On!, written with Russ Carson, associate professor, LSU School of Kinesiology, is a standards-based physical fitness program, created to provide parents and educators a play curriculum so children can meet national physical education standards while playing on playgrounds. This program fully aligns with the national physical education standards promoted by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) and can help promote moderate to vigorous levels of physical activity to combat childhood obesity.

“I was excited to work with Russ and our local team to develop Play On! because it enabled me to help develop a curriculum to transform the community-based playground into a tool to combat childhood obesity.”

The book was published by and created in partnership with AAPAR (the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation), now known as SHAPE America. The organization held a national competition to select investigators to conduct research on Play On! using special beta sites with playgrounds designed specifically for executing the Play On! curriculum. Results of that research included:

  • Playgrounds promote developmentally appropriate skills, age appropriate challenge and healthy risk taking, and develop a lifelong love of participating in healthy physical activity. 
  • 91% of the teachers reported that their use of their playground increased
  • 90% of teachers planned on continuing to use the program in the future
  • 100% rated the program 4-5 on a 5 point scale, with 5 denoting “super easy” to use
  • 1/4 of parents reported participating in more physical activity with their child after the Play On! program was initiated
  • 100% of students reported having fun engaging in Play On! activities
  • 90-100% of teachers reported that the playground curriculum was to motivate students to participate in regular, vigorous, enjoyable physical activity in a safe and supervised environment

The second edition of Play On! includes a new curriculum on early childhood play developed by co-author Cynthia DiCarlo and is due out in 2015.

Lima’s service-learning approach gives LSU students an opportunity to step outside the classroom and work directly with elementary-aged children on playground design. She also requires that her students meet with the children at least eight times throughout the semester and serve as reading or math friends throughVolunteers in Public Schools, thus addressing critical community issues and exposing the students to careers in engineering.

Lima’s national presence in the community engagement has won her numerous awards, including the 2007 Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for service-learning. She is a Fellow of American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) and was Professor of the Year in Louisiana in 2009. Lima also co-authoredService-Learning: Engineering in Your Community, the first textbook for engineering faculty who teach service-learning courses, and Building Playgrounds, Engaging Communities.

After receiving her doctoral degree from the Ohio State University, Lima has dedicated her career to teaching biological engineering students to be reflective practitioners and to ensuring that all voices are represented in community-based engineering design.

To see more about Lima’s engineering-community project engagement, watch an interview with her at


For more information, contact Mimi LaValle, LSU College of Engineering, 225-578-5706,