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Feature Article - November 2011

Finding the Way to Fun

Big Ideas to Help Create Your Superior Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Everyone loves a playground. Plunk down a slide and a set of swings in an open field and within a few hours it's bound to be crawling with kids. But with so many challenges to rise above and hurdles to clear (safety regulations, budgetary concerns, space constraints) how do you make that love last? What does it take to create a play space that captures the community's imagination and keeps them coming back?

Current trends and ideas in playground design are striving to do just that: make something that's unique in some way, comfortable to be in, with plenty of opportunities for creative play. Perhaps the best thing about this latest batch of trends is that you don't have to pick just one. Many playgrounds across the country are scoring extra points by incorporating a variety of engaging elements and finding imaginative ways to be both safe and exciting.

Read on for insights into current ideas in playground creation, then peruse our case studies to see these points of inspiration play out in a variety of spaces and places. There's bound to be something that will help you find fun in your own community.

Bold Trends and Big Ideas

Multigenerational Use   

In most cases safety regulations dictate (or at least suggest) that a playground offer separate equipment and play areas for younger and older children. It's true that age- and size-appropriate play options are important, but there are big rewards to be reaped when you provide opportunities for children and their caregivers to play together.

"It can be hard to play with kids if you're an adult," said Brianna Cutts, director of exhibitions at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, Calif. Anyone who has banged her head on a lower-than-expected archway (yes, I'm talking about myself here), crammed himself up the steps of a tiny ladder, or just resigned herself to endless swing-pushing (me again) in the name of interacting with their child or charge can attest that some big-person-friendly options would be welcome. "We've seen such magical experiences when kids get to play with adult caregivers," Cutts said.

All-ages options can include open spaces and landscaped areas to explore, or even large-scale sculptural works—maybe a maze?—to climb on and play hide and seek around. Just adding benches in the midst of the play space and providing shade to keep visitors comfortable can help make your playground a more welcoming destination for everyone involved.

Inclusive Environment   

The ADA has been around long enough that most parks and playground designers understand the need for accessible equipment, but it's also been around long enough that social scientists are starting to think about it differently. Perhaps it's not enough to provide access to a few pieces of play equipment. What's even better is an environment where children of all abilities can find ways to interact and play together. A 2007 study by Moore and Cosco, "What Makes a Park Inclusive and Universally Designed?", has termed this "social inclusion," and parks around the country are starting to take notice.

"Taking a playground beyond the minimum ADA requirements to truly provide an inclusive play space that provides play opportunities that are integrated, not just accessible, has become a major request," said Anne-Marie Spencer, a vice president with a Tennessee-based playground design and manufacturing firm.

Wide paths and platforms in and around play structures, a play area that includes ramps and rolling hills, and some alternative equipment like cradle swings are examples of "universal design" elements cited by the study. These are accessible to those with special needs, but inclusive because they can be enjoyed by everyone.