Feature Article - November 2019
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United in Play

The Latest Playgrounds Are for Everyone

By Dave Ramont


There's a lot of discussion these days around how children are not getting enough exercise and fresh air, and one big reason is the ever-increasing amount of time spent with electronic devices. But when given the opportunity, it seems that almost no kid—even the most tech-addicted—can resist the lure of an engaging playground.

Designers and manufacturers of playgrounds and playground equipment understand this, and they're always working to create and update products and develop strategies that will get kids excited about spending time at the local playground. So, what are some of the trends and shifts that playgrounds and play spaces are experiencing lately?

"A trend that is shaping play spaces, literally, is topography and play equipment integration," said Scott Roschi, creative director at a Minnesota-based company specializing in the design and manufacture of play equipment. He explained how landscape architects and playground designers are working more closely to reshape what a playground looks like through this collaboration. "Towers are made to look taller by being placed on top of a large hill. Slides and climbing elements on hillsides change the level of play and challenge."

"The most interesting trend continues to be spaces that multiple generations can enjoy," according to Kent Callison, director of marketing at an Alabama-based manufacturer of commercial playground equipment.

Sarah Lisiecki, a marketing communications and education specialist at a Wisconsin-based designer and manufacturer of commercial playground equipment, agreed. "Bringing everyone together in play and focusing on play as exercise is hugely helpful for both physical and mental health," she said.

"It's important to incorporate elements that appeal to young children, teenagers and adults at once," said Callison, explaining how communities are looking for ways to engage people of all ages and abilities in outdoor play and recreation. "Studies show this type of multigenerational and intergenerational play can provide significant social and emotional benefits that are otherwise unrealized when only addressing the needs of a single age group. Multi-user swings, inclusive playgrounds, outdoor fitness parks, nature paths and trails are all great ways to encourage everyone to play together."

Climbing High

One activity that children can't resist is climbing, and climbing on cables and ropes is both challenging and fun for kids, according to Lisiecki. These elements can provide sensory, tactile and climbing experiences for kids of all abilities. "Something unique about this is how children can create their own experience and it will be different each time they climb because of the responsive movement from others playing and moving on the ropes."

Lisiecki's company's rope and mixed-material structure was inspired by urban architecture and the world's most famous bridges. "It encourages interactive play, teamwork and engagement by boasting moving elements that interplay with nearby surfaces, making each play experience unique, exciting and cooperative," she explained.

"Rope and cable climbers are a very fast-growing segment on the playground," agreed Roschi. "The un-prescribed play that these elements provide means there is no beginning, middle or end—just a different way to attack the playground every time. The great thing about designing rope elements into the play space is that because of the inherent movement, the child is using more of their core muscles, giving them a workout, all while playing."

Getting Fit

Speaking of workout, fitness play is another trend that Lisiecki mentioned, since most kids simply aren't getting enough exercise. "While not the only fix, creating spaces where everyone can exercise and move together in a low-pressure environment helps people get more exercise."

Her company's line of fitness playgrounds is designed to challenge and exercise young bodies while providing fun, with the hope of combating the obesity crisis brought on by the use of electronic devices and simple lack of play and movement. "In fact, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that children aged 8 to 18 spend a shocking 7.5 hours [a day] in front of a screen for entertainment," said Lisiecki.

Lisiecki also discussed fitness courses, which bring together a series of challenging physical obstacles that an individual or team can take on. With various levels of challenge and multiple options and configurations available, beginner, intermediate and advanced users are accommodated. There are courses for 5- to 12-year-olds, and 13 and older. They can "create a space where families, communities and even teams or fitness classes can gather and exercise. There's even an app that offers different levels of exercise for each piece of equipment. I see this as a trend that's here to stay and can help us as a country be healthier both physically and mentally," said Lisiecki.

Callison's company also offers challenge course equipment at various levels, with optional timing systems and multiple surface options. They can be pre-designed versions, or venues can select any combination of course components. Callison explained that many communities choose to install obstacle courses and fitness equipment adjacent to traditional playgrounds. "This is one of the ways they address the need for multigenerational recreation and play. While younger children are playing on a playground, parents and adult caregivers can exercise nearby."

Universal Design

Universal design—the idea of creating spaces appropriate for all populations—continues to make strides in the realm of playgrounds. "I have to say that the fastest-growing and best design characteristic on the playground is simply inclusion," said Roschi. "Inclusive design means creating playgrounds where more children of all abilities can not only access the playground but play side-by-side with their friends and siblings."

He believes more communities have realized that just meeting ADA standards doesn't go far enough, and manufacturers are creating more products that bring all children together. He mentioned an inclusive merry-go round, a "fully accessible merry-go-round that is flush with the surface so that children using mobility devices can get right on with their friends and share in the spinning motion."

"Sensory-rich environments are popular, as it fits the goal of creating inclusive playground designs, and outdoor music is becoming a significant element in those designs," said Roschi, citing a line of outdoor musical instruments including chimes, bells, metallophones and drums. "The instruments invite kids and adults of all ages and abilities to be creative and express themselves both physically and emotionally."

"Universally-designed play spaces bring everyone together and offer equitable play and developmental opportunities for all children," said Lisiecki. "With about 20% of the overall population living with a differing ability, it's important to take everyone—children, parents, grandparents and caregivers—into account when creating community spaces."

As an example, she described inclusive swings and swing seats that allow everyone to swing. "Specially-designed seats offer support and security but allow the user to move and discover their abilities."

Lisiecki also explained how an inclusive spinner with multiple seating positions is a spinning social space designed for users of all shapes, sizes and abilities. "Outward-facing seats provide a high level of independence, while inward facing seats with high backs allow for younger users to stay securely in place." For more advanced riders to challenge their balance and coordination there is a saddle seat. "The idea here is that everyone can be in the same space enjoying the same developmental benefits and developing a common bond."

"Roller slides and tables are unique sensory experiences and are designed for children of all abilities to slide and work on upper-body strength, balance and cooperation," said Lisiecki. She explained that since these are designed with all-metal rollers that prevent the buildup of static electricity, they can be used by everyone—including children with cochlear implants.

Callison points out that there is much more to an inclusive playground than physical accessibility, and people are recognizing this more and more. "We look for ways to address five developmental domains—physical, social/emotional, sensory, cognitive and communication—in both the design of the space and in the selection of the play and recreation amenities."

Making Magic

Upon opening in 2015, Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto, Calif., was heralded as the nation's most innovative and inclusive playground, catering to the one-in-four of us living with physical and cognitive disabilities, autism, and visual and hearing impairments, as well as the medically fragile and our aging populations.

The space features distinct play zones designed to accommodate everyone, including Retreat Cocoons for those needing a break. There are smooth, seamless pathways; wheelchair access to a two-story playhouse, treehouse and top of a slide mound; fully accessible equipment including bucket swings, spinning features, wide slides, a sway boat and merry-go-round; a 24-string laser harp; play zone descriptions featuring braille; and interactive artwork. Kindness Ambassadors are on hand, welcoming more than 25,000 visitors monthly.

In 2016, the nonprofit Magical Bridge Foundation was founded by CEO Olenka Villarreal and Executive Director Jill Asher to bring innovative and inclusive playgrounds to other communities and schools. "The excitement of Magical Bridge playgrounds continues to excite city officials, residents, city councils and parks and recreation departments," said Asher, explaining that several new projects are currently underway in northern California.

Asher believes they're at the forefront of an exciting movement, but knows there's still a long way to go. "Most universally-designed playgrounds do not really meet the needs of absolutely everyone in the community." However, she said they've been flooded with calls from around the globe asking for advice and guidance. "Where we put our roots down, we've seen a tremendous groundswell of interest. With each community we go into, we see the power of inclusion extend to other projects."

It's also common for venues to reach out that just want to retrofit their existing space, and Asher said they've partnered with a play equipment manufacturer to create lower price point solutions for pocket playgrounds and schoolyards. They've even patented a slide attachment that's currently in use, to be distributed by their global partner. "This will allow someone to scoot over and wait with dignity while their mobility device is brought to them."

When it comes to designing more universally-friendly play spaces, Asher shared a few general considerations: "create zones, for predictability; install equipment that encourages collaboration; put fencing around the playground; add poured-in-place surfacing, artificial turf or concrete paths; build playgrounds that are not age-specific, but welcoming for everyone at every stage of life."

Theming & More

Sometimes a playground just needs a shot in the arm, a chance to bring some new amenities onboard to rekindle excitement. "Retrofits are a great opportunity to update an older playground," said Roschi. "By swapping out slides and play panels, it not only ups the fun but freshens up the design aesthetic with new colors and materials. One of the design features of our playgrounds is our clamping system, which allows us to easily update playground components that are sometimes decades old."

The use of theming at playgrounds continues to be common, and oftentimes the themes are vehicles for letting kids' imaginations run wild. Possibilities are numerous, including nautical themes, space, the old west, trains, circus or castles. Sometimes themes tell a story, tied to the history of a particular space or region, and manufacturers will customize equipment to fit that story.

Nature play is popular, blending the playground into the surrounding environment. Nature-inspired products might include a treehouse or clubhouse, log tunnels, rock climbers or bridges. "Nature play is a way to bring natural colors, materials and a clubhouse feel to any play space," said Lisiecki. "There is an innate need for humans to connect with the natural world around them, and being able to bring this idea to the play space is both popular and necessary."

The textures of real rock and wood might be incorporated, but she said that however it's accomplished, nature play significantly improves all aspects of child development—physical, cognitive, social and emotional. "Playing outdoors grows resilience, self-confidence, initiative, creativity and gives children an opportunity for self-expression."

Play Equity

With all the talk of how beneficial it is to get kids back outside and playing, we sometimes forget that for some children, it's not an easy option. KaBOOM! is a national nonprofit dedicated to giving all kids—especially those living in poverty—safe places to play. The organization points out that play is an equity issue, and for the 14 million kids living in poverty, play can be hard to come by as their families face many obstacles to play, including a lack of safe places, under-resourced schools that cut recess and physical education, and too much screen time.

Over its 20-plus-year history, KaBOOM! has directly built more than 3,100 playgrounds, and when that number is combined with grants, the organization has built or improved more than 17,000 play spaces.

KaBOOM!'s unique model pairs funding partners with under-resourced communities, who come together to build safe playgrounds. The Play Everywhere Challenge—which recently awarded $1 million to 22 projects across western New York and southeast Michigan—invites communities to submit creative design ideas that make it easier for families to incorporate play into everyday moments, such as implementing swings at bus stops or play zones at laundromats.

Jennifer DeMelo, director of programs and operations at KaBOOM!, related how kids often have barriers to accessing play opportunities. "Especially kids that are living in poverty," she emphasized. "Typically, their caregivers have multiple jobs and other priorities that are keeping them from actually going to a playground and making play a priority. Play Everywhere is a wonderful solution, not only to inspire cities to consider designing with kids in mind, but also to meeting kids at those moments when things aren't necessarily fun: medical centers, DMVs, laundromats, bus stops, city agencies, downtown plazas—anywhere really."

"Older kids are often aged-out of traditional playground spaces, and they're just not adequate, interesting or fun," said DeMelo, explaining that playgrounds typically accommodate kids in the 2-to-5 and 5-to-12 age range. To address this concern, KaBOOM! has introduced Adventure Courses, so communities can design and build fun, challenging options for physical activity, aimed at kids aged 10 and older. Another innovation is multi-sport courts, featuring easy-to-install and maintain interlocking panels, which provide communities with a wide variety of different sports using the same space, such as basketball, hockey, volleyball and more. "These help older kids reduce toxic stress, increase creativity, build strong friendships and just be kids."

Beyond the Basics

Designers and manufacturers continue to innovate and update when it comes to play equipment, universal design, surfacing and safety features, maintenance strategies and where playgrounds are located. But everyone agrees that the old classic swing and slide will never go out of style, though according to Lisiecki, there are ways to enhance the experience of swinging and sliding while maintaining the developmental benefits of the classics. "Adding height and creating fun angles for slides offers children a surprise and a sense of discovery. Developing swings that can be used individually or by a group adds the socialization and cooperative play aspect to the traditional swinging experience," she said.

Roschi agrees that the exhilaration of slides and swings will always be big hits. "You can go to any busy playground, and you will almost always see every type of swing filled and—in the case of multi-user swings—a line formed waiting for the chance to swing right across from their friends. For designers, creating taller towers opens the ability to thrill with longer slide rides and we never hear complaints about a longer ride."

Callison believes that these amenities will always stay relevant. "There are few things more fun—nor more beneficial to the development of a child's body, mind and emotions—than a swing and a slide!" RM