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Claude Ahrens with piece of equipment that started his business.
His Business

"Selling Smiles"

Editor's Note: Physical education programs in all Illinois colleges and universities have been drastically cut back according to a recent announcement from Springfield. The same old story prevails, when funds are scarce, physical education and recreation programs are the first to go.

TOO MUCH EMPHASIS is being placed on scholastics and far too little attention is being given to physical education in schools throughout the United States today, according to a leading manufacturer of school playground equipment.

Claude Ahrens, president of Miracle Equipment Company in Grinnell, Iowa, contends that most young children in this country "are treated like—and act like—serious-minded little adults."

Youngsters need more opportunities to laugh and play, more freedom to explore things on their own and the chance to compete against themselves and others, Ahrens believes.

"Children get this experience on the playground—and if they miss it, they miss a great part of life," said Ahrens. "Most youngsters are far too serious because our pre-schools and elementary schools put too much emphasis on encouraging children to behave like adults."

"There's a drastic difference between the child of Mexico and the child of the United States. In Mexico, you see a group of little children walking to school and they are laughing and having fun. In the United States, when you see little children on their way to school they march along like grim-faced little adults."

Ahrens, who refers to himself as "a man who sells smiles" rather than a man who sells playground equipment, is convinced that children would be happier, healthier and generally better prepared for life if they were actively and regularly challenged on well planned school playgrounds.

"School playgrounds and athletic programs in public schools across the country are a disgrace," declared Ahrens. "There is too little equipment, too little time devoted to using what equipment there is and too little emphasis on physical fitness in general."

Playground equipment made by Ahren's firm is designed to encourage youngsters to run for fun and is decorated in bright, attractive colors. In short, it's designed to produce smiles when children see and use it.

("If there ever was a time in the world's history when we need smiles, it's right now," says Ahrens. "If there ever was a time in our history when we could afford smiles, it's right now . . .")

When Ahrens discusses the plight of school playgrounds in the United States, he refers to statistics that show only 20 per cent of the students in this country are athletes and the remaining 80 per cent are, for the most part, spectators at athletic events.

"It's that 80 per cent that I'm interested in, the ones who are not athletes," said Ahrens. "But I can't start with a boy 17 or 18 years old and make him a good physical specimen. It's a growing-up process that has to begin in the elementary schools."

He said that if he were able to dictate the educational policies for his grandchildren we would see that one-third of each school day was devoted to "a minimum amount of supervision and a maximum amount of self-explored fun."

"Most elementary schools are not blessed with the availability of a gymnasium," he pointed out. "The only gymnasium they have, so to speak, is the outdoor playground."

An outdoor playground, "in terms of pure economics, is no better than it is equipped to encourage children to be active," according to Ahrens.

"We manufacture slides, swings, seesaws—you name it—

Illinois Parks and Recreation    16    March/April, 1972

and we have found that by putting action apparatus on a playground children are four times as active as if we put stationary equipment on that same playground."

The biggest item in the Miracle line of playground equipment is the Astro City, a 107 foot-long complex of running ramps, a climbing tower and three slides. But the idea behind the design of the Astro City, Ahrens is quick to point out, was not to simply have distinction of building a big piece of equipment.

"The beautiful part of it is that a youngster jogs about one-quarter of a mile, running from the end of the slide back up to the top, if he goes down the slide just ten times," he explained.

That same philosophy, of encouraging children "to run for fun", is evident in dozens of other Miracle playground items, such as the Earn-A-Slide, where youngsters use arm muscles to climb up a large inclined slide bedway to "earn" a slide hack down, and the Tower Climber Slide, where children climb up a chain ladder to the top of the tower before sliding down.

All Miracle equipment is safety-engineered to prevent playground injuries, but Ahrens is a firm believer in the theory that it's neither practical nor desirable to try to make playgrounds one-hundred per cent safe.

"If all playgrounds were one-hundred per cent safe, children wouldn't use them," he maintains. "Kids want action—and if there's no challenge, they won't use the equipment. They learn a lot from little bumps and bruises. They learn to recognize dangers and they learn personal responsibility."

The Miracle Junior Challenge Course, a scaled-down version of the old military obstacle course designed especially for students in the elementary grades, has proved to be highly popular with students and teachers alike on school playgrounds throughout the country.

In addition to its usefulness as a body-building, skill-testing tool, the 13-station Challenge Course provides full-time recreational use of individual items during free time as regular play equipment, reflecting Ahren's philosophy to "build play equipment that makes physical fitness fun."

"In the last decade, many educators have pushed scholastics to the breaking point," Ahrens insists. "As a result, children in our schools and colleges have rebelled against supervision and education—dropping out instead of joining in."

Ahrens noted that when federal land grants for colleges were initiated years ago the purpose was to help improve the bodies, as well as the minds, of young people.

"For some reason or another, most of the immediate rewards seem to be exploding the mind. So, consequently our educators from the elementary level all the way through college, has dropped the emphasis on physical education.

"It's absolutely alarming to read articles like one that was recently printed about the Philadelphia public school system eliminating its athletic program due to a lack of funds. It's equally alarming when you hear about some small colleges dropping out of athletic competition for the same reason.
Astro City is a 32 feet high piece of equipment which draws interest of children of all ages.

"I sometimes feel that American taxpayers have lacked interest in pointing out the values of physical education. Personally I believe it's time to think about investing more of our tax dollars in physical education instead of assigning it last priority."

Ahrens said that an elementary school playground can be well equipped for as little as $7,000 and that it should last at least ten years with very little maintenance.

"That averages out to $700 a year over a ten-year period," Ahrens noted. "You can't hire a decent playground supervisor to stand on the playground for one month for what you can get in equipment for an entire year."

A well planned, well equipped playground "is the cheapest way to go," Ahrens argues, "and so the argument that a school can't afford playground equipment simply doesn't make sense."

Illinois Parks and Recreation    17    March/April, 1972

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