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Feature Article - October 2017

Widening the Playing Field

Diversity & Inclusiveness in Multigenerational Playgrounds

By Rick Dandes


Multigenerational playgrounds have been around in one form or another in the United States since the 1950s, but trying to appeal these days to a modern, diverse American audience all at once can be a challenging task. Tots, teens, gen Z, millennials, gen Xers and baby boomers each have generational characteristics. They gravitate toward several distinct relaxation styles and exercise techniques and are drawn to different play equipment.

Historically, when a family goes to a play space, the preteen/teenage members would be completely absent. Parents headed for the bench, kids went to the play area and except for brief interchanges, they would remain in these spaces until it was time to go.

"I think that owners of public spaces and equipment manufacturers are just beginning to really comprehend what that means to a family, and now they are responding with meaningful designs," explained Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing for a large playground design and equipment manufacturing conglomerate based in Chattanooga, Tenn. "The trick to really engaging the entire family is creating a space with opportunities for activity that appeal to the whole family, as opposed to someone taking part in something they don't really enjoy, just to play along."

John McConkey, market insights manager, at a playground design firm based in Delano, Minn., agreed, adding that designers recognize this past disparity. "So the trend is for designers and manufacturers to find and implement strategic ways to focus on activities that create inter-generational engagement," he said. "The idea is to bring the adult and the child together or the grandparent and the grandchild together in the playground, instead of having siloed activities such as we might have seen in the past."

Trends & Innovation in Playground Philosophies

In response to this trend toward more family activity, Spencer explained, planners have started adding adult fitness areas in playgrounds designed for people ages 13 and up, so that they can get in a workout while supervising the kids, "which is a great idea because the parents and older siblings are active, setting a great example for kids to be active," she said.

"What's even more exciting," Spencer noted, "is that people who exercise outside not only stay longer, they also tend to repeat the behavior more frequently, meaning children get to play more, too."

Playground designers now have the ability to create things that are really interesting and bring excitement back to play again, added Todd Lehman, a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI), and owner and executive creative director of a New Hope, Minn.-based designer and manufacturer of playground equipment. "With that," he said, "we are getting parents off of their seats and playing with their kids again."

Multigenerational playgrounds have been around in one form or another in the United States since the 1950s, but trying to appeal these days to a modern, diverse American audience all at once can be a challenging task.

Lehman's philosophy centers on getting kids moving again, "and getting kids to actively play. It is all about creating excitement and getting kids to want to play in these unique environments. I think kids are tired of traditional playgrounds, with metal posts, where you climb up a ladder, go up on a platform, go across a bridge and go down a slide. That's the same playground kids have at their elementary school, or at their daycare center, or the park up the street. It's all kind of the same thing."

What Lehman suggested is to create activities that would lead to physical and creative use of a structure. Then you invite all levels of participation, from the oldest to the youngest visitors, and doing that through the use of creative design.

"Good design comes in all shapes and forms," Lehman said. "But particularly, for play, it is creating something that people can get excited about. And that is good, creative, unique play environments—not just the standard playground that looks like a bunch of crayons stuck in the ground. Been there, done that."

The idea, Lehman said, is to have an environment where from the very moment you pull up to the parking lot, kids will jump out of the car and run to these unique environments and unique structures.

Custom Design & Setting Up a Social Scene

One big trend, as Lehman sees it, is custom play, which allows each community to have a uniqueness and create a mark on their residents. "The idea is when someone goes to a particular city center's park, they know it is different and unique to that space. It has character to it. It creates a relationship between a user and their environment."

Traditional playgrounds don't create that relationship, Lehman said. They are just there. They don't evoke an emotion or relationship, "but when you do create something that people can relate to or have an imagination or create a memory," he said, "something that creates a new memory for a child or evokes an old memory in an adult, that's a goal.

"One of the keys to a successful multigenerational playground is, instead of a parent sitting on a bench on the sideline with their nose in a phone, you evoke a 'this is cool' reaction by the kids. 'Hey, mom and dad, come play with me,' and they all get excited about playing together. It is unique and different."