By John McConkey
One of the most exciting trends in parks and recreation is the popularity of new classes of independent climbers. This trend is evident everywhere you look—at elementary schools, city parks and churches.
There are several reasons for the proliferation of independent climbing events, not the least of which is the inherent fascination that children have for climbing; they simply cannot get enough of it. For children, the act of climbing is an uplifting experience. It literally and figuratively raises their stature and broadens their horizons. At the top of an event, they are transformed into children who are more confident than they were when they stood at ground level.
Another factor that has influenced this trend is the way that a new independent climber can transform the look and chemistry of a playground. Not only can a new independent climber attract a lot of children, but it also can change the way kids play.
Well-designed climbing events don't discriminate—they challenge kids of many different ages and abilities and bring them together in an experience that is both social and physical. More importantly, good climbing events keep kids active and coming back for more. They increase children's spatial awareness, hand-eye coordination and balance and build strength in their core muscle groups as well as in the hands, arms and legs. No sooner does a child master one climbing route, then he or she is back again trying to conquer another route of equal or greater difficulty.
Above all, independent climbers can be a great value. You can add an independent climbing event to an existing playground for a fraction of the cost of a new play structure, and most of them require very little site preparation and are easy to install.
So what types of new climbing events should you consider?
For the sake of simplicity, it is convenient to break them down into three classes: realistic rock structures, cable climbers and climbing walls with molded handholds.
From a distance you simply cannot discern the best of the new rock-like climbing structures from the real thing. In fact, you hardly can see any difference when you are standing next to them—that's how good the latest technology is in glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC). GFRC produces a surface that is incredibly hard and gets harder with age. The surface is mounted on a steel frame to produce a climbing event that weighs thousands of pounds and can withstand compression impacts of more than 5,000 pounds per square inch. The best brands are designed to last for decades and can be installed in less than a day. They bring a beautiful natural look to the playground and can serve as a visual center for the play area.
Most of these structures are designed for children ages 5 to 12, and it is not uncommon to see a dozen or more kids climbing at one time. Kids socialize atop these play events and use the vantage point to get a sweeping view of the play area.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
- A realistic look and feel to the climbing surface
- Single-piece installation
- Product warranties of five years or more
- Models that can be integrated into a play structure or used in tandem with other models
An interesting thing happens when the structure on which you are climbing shifts: The complexity of the climb rises, the challenge increases and the fun level soars. Such is the appeal of the cable climbers.
Cable climbers have been popular in Europe for 30 years, but they really are taking off in North America as designers and planners look to bring more excitement and challenges onto the playground. These intricate, three-dimensional climbing events come in a variety of shapes, including pyramids, rockets, spheres and tetrahedrons. They also range in height from a relatively modest 10 feet to a stratospheric 18 feet.
At the core of their design are one or more aluminum or steel posts that are securely anchored in the ground. Around these foundations then are woven a matrix of heavy-duty cables that extend from the ground to the pinnacle and typically take on a geometric appearance. These intricate systems are unique in that children can climb both on and through them. This creates an unlimited number of climbing routes and enables the structures to accommodate dozens of children at one time.
And there is another feature that kids find enthralling about this class of climbers: The cables flex and move as you grab them or step on them. This not only makes the individual climbing experience more fun and challenging, but the movement of one child is transmitted throughout the system, thereby enhancing the fun of all the climbers. This interactive play component is not found in any other type of climber.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
- Climbing cables with a steel core for strength and durability
- Cable surfaces that have a woven texture that is easy to grasp
- Tightly strung cable matrix so handholds do not sway out of reach
- Designs that are both wide and tall to accommodate many climbers at one time
- UV-stable cables that retain their color
- Models that can be linked to a play structure via a cable bridge
Climbing walls were first developed in the 1980s as a training tool and competitive arena for serious rock climbers. These structures were typically 50 to 80 feet tall and were either freestanding or attached to the outside of a building. The climbing challenges they presented were extremely difficult and required a high degree of strength, flexibility and technical skill. It was not unusual to see 10,000 or more athletes and spectators at these climbing competitions in the United States and Europe.
In time, climbing walls found their way into leading outdoor retailers and into the recreational facilities of colleges and universities. Over the last few years, scaled down versions of these walls have been created for the playground.
The simplest executions of this concept feature a two-dimensional wall that is 6 feet to 8 feet tall and 8 feet to 24 feet long with holes cut in the climbing surface to serve as handholds and footholds. These holes also allow children climbing on opposite sides of the structure to communicate with one another, a benefit not found on solid-surface climbers. In some cases, these climbers also can be attached directly to the play structure to allow children to climb onto a deck.
Another variation of the climbing wall features a solid vertical climbing surface with colorful handholds mounted onto the surface. This design is more true to the original climbing walls and typically presents greater climbing challenges. There are many variations on the wall configuration, including straight walls, right angles and intersecting planes. Some walls are broad enough to allow children to sit atop them, while others encourage vertical and horizontal movement.
Some of the newest versions of the climbing wall take climbing into three dimensions as the actual climbing surface flows into different planes creating greater challenges and visual appeal. No longer are kids constrained with climbs that are vertical, now they climb at angles—sometimes even upside down.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
- Durable materials
- Handholds that are easy to grip for both small and larger hands
- Handholds that are flush mounted to avoid pinch points and double bolted to avoid loosening
- Climbing surfaces that are smooth and non-abrasive
As with all play events, it is important to have a sufficient space to meet the required minimum play area for these climbers, as well as sufficient safety surfacing materials for each event's maximum fall height.
Your playground representative should be able to assess your site and provide you with recommendations for the perfect independent climber for your kids and your budget.