Feature Article - November 2011
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Finding the Way to Fun

Big Ideas to Help Create Your Superior Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Community Customized   

Advertising and marketing pros will tell you that incorporating a theme can make practically anything more appealing. Don's Tiki Hut gives the imagination much more to work with than Don's Bar and Grill, and an arctic-themed or jungle-themed or wilderness-themed play area will have the same effect on kids' creative brains. But even better than a theme you pull out of a hat is something that connects your playground to its surroundings and those who'll be using it. Whether it's your town's historical roots, the animals found nearby or a local legend, there's bound to be something you can draw on to make your playground stand out from the crowd as a point of community pride.

"My playground hero, Aldo van Eyck, built over 400 playgrounds on bombed-out sites in Amsterdam after World War II," said Playscapes' Johnson. "He understood that he wasn't just building spaces for play, he was rebuilding a community. A playground can be an amazing way to draw a diverse group of people, of all ages, together in a unique space that becomes deeply embedded in the communal heart. Ask yourself what local traditions the playground could reflect? What local artisans could participate in its expression? How can the playground connect to the spaces around it (hint: no fences)? How can the playground entrance be a special part of the site, signifying its importance within the community? How can your playground be unique and different?"

The members of your community may be a great source for ideas—and you'll want them involved in the planning and development of a new project anyway—so ask them what they're proud of and what they'd like to see. Do some preliminary research and narrow it to a few choices, first, so you don't have to have meetings for a year, suggested Tim O'Connor, director of Parks & Recreation for West University Place, Texas. "Consensus is something we rarely arrive at, but we do get a majority view or opinion," he said.

Then when it's time to install and get started, you can call on your constituents again. Nothing makes for a fun day of togetherness and offers a tangible investment in the play space like inviting families to help put their new playground together.

Case Studies: Inspiration Put in Practice

Rocket Park      

People living in Grand Junction, Colo., have long loved to play at Rocket Park. And as you might guess from the name, there's a space theme there. But, not long ago, Rocket Park was in need of a revamp, as some of its old equipment had become unsafe, and Recreation Superintendent Traci Wieland had to determine what to do.

Safety was the initial driving force, she said, "but it became abundantly clear that we needed to become more all-age and all-ability friendly. Watching what other communities have done and [seeing] how our community completely lacked something so basic, we recognized the need to address [these issues]."

As they began making plans, Grand Junction Parks & Recreation wisely got the town involved. "We understood and appreciated the love the community had for the old play equipment," Wieland said. "The community wanted the space theme preserved, the adaptive community and schools wanted the integrated accessible environment, and pretty much everyone who ever went to Rocket Park didn't want the old rocket to go away!"

Working to meet all of these goals, Wieland and her staff suggested keeping the old rocket at the park as a piece of artwork, rather than something to play on. "The idea was met with mixed reviews early in the process, but they were won over with the final product that now proudly marks the corner of the park property," Wieland said.

The updated safety surfacing, ramps and space-themed amenities (which include spaceship-style control panels on the equipment and rocket designs inlaid into the poured rubber surface) chosen for the new Rocket Park were more expensive than the bare basics, but Wieland said the investment was worth it. Revamped Rocket Park opened in spring 2010 and is now one of the top three most-used parks in the city. Its attendance rivals that of larger regional parks, and shelter reservations are up 30 percent.

"The safety issues have been eliminated, and the benefits are clear as we witness children of all ages and abilities playing side by side," Wieland said. "This playground and redevelopment process is now the model for future replacements and redevelopments for our park system."