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Supplement Feature - April 2013

Imagination at Play

Trends in Playground Design

By Wynn St. Clair


In an effort to meet 21st-century expectations, progressive recreation managers are rethinking their approach to playground design. The modern style is all about imagination, about tapping into one's inventive side and rethinking how the equipment will be used—and who will use it.

That means building playgrounds that spark the imagination, encourage creative play, attract a wide variety of users and enhance communities. Whether this is achieved through a universally accessible park, adult-centric equipment, a natural play space or just a really fun theme, it needs to be done.

"The playground industry has never been more creative or diverse," said California-based industry consultant Miranda Carrillo. "There is so much available right now, it's really very easy to keep patrons entertained."

Carrillo finds the growing popularity of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) among the most exciting trends in the industry currently. GFRC equipment offers a natural, rock-like feel and texture. What's more, it doesn't look as artificial as fiberglass.

The structures—which encourage climbing and other imaginative play—are UV-stable and have a natural, weathered finish that won't fade over time. Proponents often argue that the durable GFRC structures get better with age because they harden over time, delivering years of reliable use. The concrete is designed to survive even the harshest and most punishing climates because it doesn't burn, splinter or crumble.

The concrete works well, in part, because it can be turned into whimsical play structures in a variety of ways. Manufacturers are constantly coming up with new methods for molding and sculpting the GFRC into all sorts of shapes, which helps to create independent play elements or to bolster a thematic design for a play area. As a design medium, the concrete's extreme flexibility allows designers to emulate realistic textures such as scales, feathers, furs, leaves and tree bark.

"The glass fiber reinforced concrete is a wonderful partner for creating an engaging playground theme," Carrillo said. "It easily transforms into a dragon or a tree house or a snake or whatever else you can imagine. Themed playgrounds are so popular at the moment, and the concrete is a huge reason why."

Indeed, themed playgrounds have become the must-have accessories for parks and schools in recent years. The most engaging play spaces today are more than just a collection of fun features. In a move stolen from private-sector amusement parks, many public playgrounds have been transformed into well-planned fantasylands with a central theme carried throughout. Whether it is a fantastical motif such as an enchanted forest or a historical homage to the community, themed playgrounds give facilities an extra zing in a world where the number of outdoor recreation options continues to grow.

In Mankato, Minn., for example, officials recently opened a farmstead-themed playground in the 126-year-old Sibley Park. Located next to a beloved petting zoo filled with alpacas, calves, goats, peacocks, horses, pigs, lambs, chicks and ducklings, the play area site has been a popular place for field trips and family outings for years.

The park, named for Minnesota's first Governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, offers recreational opportunities, space for weddings and picnicking areas, as well as the storybook farm site. Over the past century, the park has boasted a horse racing track, regional zoo, museum, community band shell, clay tennis courts and renowned gardens. In other words, it historically has been far more than a run-of-the-mill park.