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Supplement Feature - April 2014

Ready, Set, Play!

Getting Your Playground Initiative Up and Running

By Joe Bush


Studies done in recent years by the Centers for Disease Control and Stanford University make good cases for the need for more playgrounds in the United States; the former states that only 20 percent of the country's kids live within a half-mile of a playground, and the latter says today's kids spend less time playing outside than any previous generation. The CDC also says only a quarter of U.S. kids are getting an hour of rigorous physical activity per day.

One of the fixes is to build more playgrounds, but they need money and space and people dedicated to the mental and physical well-being of children. As with many capital projects, playground building is easier said than done, though convincing people of their value is usually a slam-dunk.

"You're never going to get in many arguments, or hear 'Oh, we don't want a playground,'" said Steve Casey, assistant superintendent of park planning and construction for Lee's Summit, Mo. "Anything is better than nothing. They always bring smiles to people's faces."

There is a widely-accepted process of building a playground involving communities, manufacturers and installers, and it goes something like this, according to Mike Sutton, vice president of global sales for a Monett, Mo.-based playground manufacturer:

"There are different starting points depending on the market segment, like parks and recreation, schools and landscape architects to name a few. For example, a school's PTA organization will typically begin a playground project by establishing a playground committee. This committee will research the type of playground it believes would best benefit the school based on the needs of their specific age group, available space and budget. Once the scope is established, fundraising for the project begins. During this time, different companies are invited to propose ideas for the playground project by meeting with the committee on budgets, design wishes and site location. Once the vendor has been chosen, final designs, color choices and surfacing are finalized and installation of the project can begin."

Let's break Sutton's statement down by steps, beginning with funding:

You've decided to build a playground, so….

How will you pay for it? If the money for a start-to-finish project isn't already in the coffers, how can it be raised, either in full or in part?

Tim McNamara of playground consultants ABCreative Inc., DeSoto, Kan., says a small neighborhood playground can be done, including surfacing, for $15,000. A destination playground like the one his company has helped with will top $600,000 by the time it's completed this summer. The former is built for 20 kids at once, the latter as many as 350.

McNamara said variable cost factors include the amount of prep work needed for the site's drainage or to incorporate topography into the playground, the type and amount of equipment and surfacing, and how much the community helps with the installation. He suggests groups figure out what they and the children want and need before worrying about the expense; the bid process is the time to sort that out, and experienced manufacturers, consultants and dealers are always trying to please.

"It's logical that creativity and effort to get as much in as you can for a certain budget goes to the wayside and you just try and make the playground as least expensive as you can, but really that hurts the kids because you start eliminating things," McNamara said. "For instance, we know the space and we know how many kids, so I know the size and play structure. Say I have a climber that kids love, but the climber is going to cost $3,000. Why would I put that in if I was just trying to be low bid rather than put in a climber that costs $600? You start to undermine your creativity and truly giving the best value."

There are three ways to help with costs, and a combination of them can be used coincidentally. Community builds save money mainly when people do all or part of a playground installation. Grants from governments and corporations provide all or part of the funding.

Finally, there are many ways to fundraise, some specific to playgrounds, McNamara said, like an event featuring the equipment piece by piece to draw sponsors for each, akin to sidewalk or wall brick sponsorships. In general, playground manufacturers and consultants and nonprofit organizations like KaBOOM! consider grant and fundraising assistance a crucial part of their services.

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