Wake County

Asheville couple design playgrounds with fun, safety in mind

Building custom playgrounds in North Carolina

Asheville Playgrounds husband/wife team Jerry Hajek and Evelyn Anderson, Tuesday, April 28, 2015 in the Raleigh area constructing several playground structures at the Wendell Falls new subdivision. The Asheville, NC based playground business has b
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Asheville Playgrounds husband/wife team Jerry Hajek and Evelyn Anderson, Tuesday, April 28, 2015 in the Raleigh area constructing several playground structures at the Wendell Falls new subdivision. The Asheville, NC based playground business has b

Children of the 1970s may recall climbing on metal monkey bars with chipped lead paint, slides hot enough to bake cupcakes and carousels that induced more nausea than laughter.

Kids from a safer generation, a decade or two younger, played on hard plastic “structures” with rounded edges, free of asphalt and steel, less likely to generate either lawsuits or fun.

So here in Wendell, Evelyn Anderson is building the playground of 2015 – all from locust branches and rhododendron limbs, covered in bumps and knotholes, designed to be clambered like a backyard oak.

The highlight of her creation: a Y-shaped trunk called the Tree Climber, big enough to crash through your roof in a thunderstorm, the sort of perch that would tempt Tom Sawyer.

“Kids don’t know how to shinny,” said Anderson. “This is a shinny post.”

In an era when first-graders can navigate an iPad but can’t jump a stream, Anderson and her Asheville Playgrounds company aim to inject outdoor fun into outdoor recreation, insisting that play can be risky without being hazardous.

Their work can already been seen all over the Triangle: the teepee at White Deer Park in Garner, the 10-foot treehouse at Rock Ridge Park in Pittsboro, the chicken coop and silo at Knightdale Station park. But Anderson, 58, and her husband, Jerry Hajek, 62, have just scored the biggest endorsement yet for their concept.

They built the playground for Wendell Falls, a 1,400-acre development east of Raleigh, topping out at 4,000 units and slated to become the largest residential community in Wake County. At first glance, this colossal project from Newland Communities seems an odd match for a two-person, husband-wife team – free spirits who parked their motor home in Asheville in 2006 and never left.

But Anderson remembers the playgrounds of her youth, which consisted of swings, a tunnel and the woods. You got lost in there. You maybe skinned your knee or sprained an ankle. You navigated the boulders and the water moccasins and came out wiser. That was part of the fun, which middle-aged children increasingly remind the world in their “I survived free-range parenting” posts on Facebook.

Her philosophy shows in her spirit: wearing an orange hard hat, wielding power tools and driving a Bobcat – a grown-up not far removed from the jungle gym.

“We grew up in an environment that was full of risks and dangers,” she said, “and you had to learn how to deal with it. To me, that’s what playgrounds are for.”

Creating challenges

Serious thinking goes into how, what and where children play. Not just the height of the slides and whether the surfaces are impact-resistant. Doctoral dissertations regularly get written about how playgrounds shape young minds.

Quarterly publications are dedicated to the subject, featuring articles with academic-sounding titles: “We Must Re-Think Our Playgrounds” and “Beyond Swings, Spinners and Slides.”

The push for caution in playground construction appeared in the late 1970s as alarm grew over emergency room visits and tests showing even minor falls could turn fatal. The hardest pushing came from a playground consultant in Cleveland named Theodora Briggs Sweeney, who published a report in Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed medical journal, with the warning, “The name of the playground game will continue to be Russian roulette.”

Safety remains a focus even for those playground builders who want to avoid coddling.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports emergency rooms annually treat 200,000 children aged 14 or younger for playground-related injuries. The National Program for Playground Safety reported that between 2001 and 2008, more than half of the injuries to young children happened on public playgrounds, two-thirds of them from falls or equipment failure.

“It’s surprising,” said Hajek, “how many kids get choked by drawstrings on hoodies.”

To Hajek and Anderson, both certified playground safety inspectors, there’s a critical difference between a hazard and a risk.

A hazard is something children can’t control – a danger they don’t see coming. A sharp edge. A tight space. A hot surface. Asheville Playgrounds screens its tree-branch sculptures for those types of snares.

Hajek uses a block of wood the width of a child’s torso, probing the spaces between the logs to make sure none are narrow enough to trap. He fills in the gaps on the shinny post to make sure nobody gets wedged in the Y-space between the limbs.

But risk is different.

Risk is looking at a ladder and wondering if it’s too high to climb. Risk is looking at a stream and wondering if it’s too wide to jump. Anderson recalled seeing a young child size up the 10-foot treehouse in Pittsboro and decide to tackle it some other day, when it didn’t loom so large.

“I hope a kid looks at this,” she said, pointing to her shinny post, “and says, ‘How the heck am I going to climb this?’”

In a 2014 article in Playground magazine, pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom argued that if playgrounds offer kids no challenges, kids will create challenges on their own, often posing a greater threat. A boring slide invites kids to go head-first. A dull swingset invites kids to stand up while swinging.

“We need to simply provide the stimulating environment,” she wrote, “and then step back and let them test it out on their own.”

Staying playful

Married 35 years, Anderson and Hajek know a few things about the rewards of risky behavior.

After a stint in San Francisco, where Hajek worked as a sign designer and Anderson went to college, they sold their house in 1990 and spent nine months traveling the country in a camper. They ran out of money in Texas and started a nursery, which lasted for five years but couldn’t compete with the late ’90s surge in Internet shopping. So about 10 years ago, they got back in the camper, landing in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

With its tie-dyes and headbands, Asheville reminded them of the Berkeley of their past – minus the traffic. So they stayed and bought a small playground company called Just For Fun, blending in with the expert woodworkers of the Blue Ridge.

They developed a style of their own, natural wood with twists and gnarls still on the branches. “I like to just sit and pick at the bark,” said Anderson, “and the kids do, too.” Their work with pressure-treated wood took on a similar playfulness, especially the playgrounds built for churches, which often include Gothic spires.

But the recession hit hard, nearly wiping out their residential development contacts. One winter, they went four months without a phone call. Then she wrote to “Your Business,” a weekly program on MSNBC that profiles small-business owners facing challenges and offers them a makeover. The biggest question for the pair: How to survive in an industry that doesn’t attract repeat business?

They changed the company name. They got a new logo. They got a new website. They got a huge boost, leading to much more commercial and church playgrounds. Now their residential work is all high-end, and their projects range from $10,000 to $150,000. But for the moment, they’re still living in the camper parked in the mountains.

Shannon McSwiney, marketing director for Newland Communities, explained why one of the largest residential developers in the country chose a husband-wife team from Asheville.

“They’re very down to Earth, really, in a nice, unique way,” she said. “We strive to create unique experiences. There’s so much out there that’s the same.”

The pair would tell you there’s a playfulness required from life, and a jumping into uncertainty that defines its quality. The rule holds true at age 2 and 62.

“We’re children of the ’60s,” said Hajek. “We’re still vaguely connected to this sort of thing.”

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

Find out more about playground safety

The National Recreation and Park Association, which certifies playground safety inspectors, says common playground hazards include hard surfaces under the equipment, not enough space between play areas, protruding hardware that can entangle a child’s clothing and too-small spaces that can trap a child. To watch a video of its “dirty dozen” hazards and find out what is correct, go to www.nrpa.org.