Supplement Feature - April 2017
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A World of Play

Trends in Playground Planning & Design

By Joe Bush

Show Me the Money

To that end, grants for funding are as important as ever. With projects, before installation, ranging from $30,000 to $250,000, any help is welcome. Chandler said that funding has been, and will continue to be, the most highly requested area of information for playground planning. The Grant Funding Guide is the most visited page on the company's website, she added.

"By focusing on the type of grant being sought, the geographic location and funding amount needed, users can winnow down the options that best meet their needs," she said. "When applying for grants, it is important to clearly state the desired benefit and outcome, and how these outcomes will improve the health, education or overall well-being of the constituents, facility or community."

Tom Norquist, senior vice president of marketing and corporate innovation for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based playground manufacturer, added, "Have a clear objective to what you want to achieve. If you want to serve children with special needs, make sure your plan considers the needs of all children and is designed to be and inclusive. If you want to provide a place that helps children be more active, ensure you've created a playground that includes plenty of overhead climbing activities, spinning, balancing, sliding, swinging and other active play events. If you want to address the health and wellness of a community, consider a fitness project with outdoor exercise products for adults and an adjacent playground for children. If your goal is to revitalize a greenway or trail, use play pockets stationed along the path that encourage children and families to learn about the environment as they explore. Measure the success of your project-outcomes-based data is critical. Funders want to make sure their dollars are used effectively."

Keven Rambaud, regional sales director for a play equipment manufacturer with U.S. headquarters in Greenville, S.C., said that when seeking grants, persistence and creativity are necessary. "Grants are available in the market—the challenge is they are limited and many people or organizations are seeking them," he said. "I suggest to search and network. Also, I suggest private donations from companies, to use it as a marketing opportunity for the companies."

New Approaches & Themes

Rambaud sees a few recent trends in the evolution of play structures; one is a move away from the past.

"We see the market growing tired of the traditional post-and-platform structures; they want something new, exciting and a little different, but still full of play value," he said. "They also want the fun back in the playground, risk for development and cognitive growth, but still safe. They also want more open play versus traditional rigid play."

Other changes include height of structures, more wood and more rope, said Rambaud. Most manufacturers are incorporating rope elements or rope-inspired playgrounds with net climbers, bridges and rope connections, taking cues from European methods from the 1970s and 1980s and companies like Rambaud's, which has produced rope-heavy play equipment for nearly 50 years, he said.

"We have seen a trend in play value that goes taller for visual impact," Rambaud said. "Our rope structures supply the value and height in most cases. Because of this, we expanded … with more options, providing additional designs connecting via bridges and nets. We also introduced a line using natural elements, to provide a whimsical fairytale theme."

Themes, especially customized themes, are typical of higher-budget play areas, said Norquist. These might include themed glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) structures, earth forming and landscape architecture, multi-structure play systems and freestanding play areas designed around a theme or themes.

"In some cases these projects are designed to tell the story of a community or celebrate a city's unique culture or heritage," said Norquist. "They become community centerpieces and signature, destination playgrounds that are landmarks within the city."

Working in a Budget

A smaller budget might include inclusive playgrounds with sensory play elements, integrated shade structures and accessible surfacing. This category also includes challenge courses, large municipal play areas and play trails. Norquist said budget-friendly projects include outdoor fitness parks, pocket parks—small tracts of land used for a specific recreation purpose like a small playground, fitness area or community garden—or a single play structure.

The three-tier budget descriptions highlight just how far play equipment has come; flexibility and accessorizing are possible because of innovations in design and materials. Chandler said budget ranges can vary greatly for today's playground equipment, depending on the size of the overall environment, the types of materials and surfacing being used, and the method of installation. Higher-budget playgrounds typically address multiple age groups of users, such as 2-to-5-year-olds and 5-to-12-year-olds, requiring two separate structures.

Integrated shade and unitary surfacing will typically round out the overall design of higher-budget environments, bringing the overall costs into the range of $100,000 to $250,000. For more modest budgets, playground equipment can be designed to fit a smaller footprint, with lower deck heights and ground-level activities. Choosing a single, composite structure designed for specific ages with additional freestanding play activities, such as swings and bouncers, along with loose-fill surfacing can range anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000.

For those with limited budgets, a smaller structure with no free-standing equipment and engineered wood fiber surfacing can cost less than $30,000. Installation costs vary according to local contractors, but just as new equipment and materials have emerged, so has creativity.

"The most cost effective installation method is a community build," Chandler said. "This option typically requires a supervisor who is familiar with the equipment, and who can direct community members or groups to ensure that assembly is done correctly and safely. It can provide a positive, rewarding experience for all participants."