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Feature Article - July 2016

Play On!

Evolving Trends & Innovations in Playground Design

By Dave Ramont


In 1906, the Playground Association of America was formed to promote the ideas and benefits of playgrounds, a relatively new concept. The organization assisted with design, layout and construction, and advised on the activities and conduct to occur on the playgrounds, which typically were separate play sections and athletic fields, often supervised. Manufacturing companies took notice and saw a need for playground equipment, which was built with galvanized steel pipes, chains and ladders. Early apparatus included jungle gyms, swings, merry-go-rounds and other twirling contraptions.

Many variations of those earliest features are still popular. But designers, manufacturers and communities are always on the hunt for innovative play ideas and products—striving to strike a balance between exercise, education, social interaction and just plain fun!

Finding a Theme

As we look at how playgrounds are evolving today, let's start with theming, which has become more prevalent in recent years. Scott Roschi, director of design for a Delano, Minn.-based playground design firm, explained how park planners will reach out to community members to get their input, uncovering ideas leading to the creation of meaningful playground themes that are often connected to the local history.

Tom Norquist, senior vice president of a Fort Payne, Ala.-based playground equipment manufacturer and marketing committee chair for the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and the Voice of Play, agrees, and noted how theming around local history and culture allow children to learn while they play. "For example, a park may have a Wild West theme, or perhaps a playspace with a railroad theme as a reference to the area's past as a transportation hub."

Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company focused on play and recreation research, programming and products, has also witnessed an increase in theming, "… especially in communities that are associated with a historical event or located in an environment they wish to align with," she said.

One example she cited is the Washington Park Fort playground in Cincinnati, created to symbolize the rich heritage of the city. Along with a boardwalk and stage, it features a play castle, sandbox, musical instruments, dual slides, a canal boat in a stream and a climbing wall based on Cincinnati's historic architecture.

Not all themes are history-based. The playground within the Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro, Md., boasts a spectacular Wizard of Oz theme—the 80-foot-tall trees making a perfect setting for the Emerald Forest. Kids can experience Auntie Em and Uncle Henry's Kansas farm, Dorothy's house, Munchkin Land, the poppy field, Toto's doghouse, the hot air balloon, and the Emerald City. Dorothy's ruby red slippers were adapted to be playground slides. A poured-in-place safety surface mimics the Yellow Brick Road.

Other themes for sparking the imagination include boats, space, military, science, sports and music. Norquist said a lot of effort goes into a playground's theming to give it the "Wow!" factor. "The area could have a common thread relating to a theme like dinosaurs—a dinosaur egg spinner, a large dinosaur structure that encompasses a slide down the tail, spring platform equipment shaped like dinosaur footprints and more."

Michael Laris, chief product officer at a Lewisburg, Pa.-based playground equipment manufacturer, said his company also is fielding more requests for themed play equipment, but they take a more cautious approach. "Children bring their own imagination to the playground. If they need a ship for their play, they'll turn a castle into a ship," he said.

He observes how usually a themed playground is a vision of adults and not requested by children. "I firmly believe that each playground should be unique, but theming isn't always the way to go," he said. "We like designing so that we're giving clues toward a theme, but not be too specific so that we leave room for the imagination."

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