The Ongoing Evolution of Splash Play
By Dave Ramont
On a nice hot day, you just might find yourself daydreaming about relaxing under a gentle, cool mist of water. Or, if you're a kid, you might require a bit more action when it comes to cooling off, such as engaging in a battle of water cannons or getting a giant bucket of water dumped on your head. If there's a splash park nearby, all of these things and more are possibilities.
Splash parks, splash pads, spray parks, spraygrounds—whatever term you use to describe them, they have been gaining in popularity over the past 15 years or so. Sometimes they're part of, or adjacent to, wading pools, but often they're stand-alone facilities with no standing water, thus eliminating the need for lifeguards. And with low-flow options, users don't necessarily have to change into swimming attire—street clothes are welcome. They can accommodate almost any space, though the minimum suggested size is about 1,000 square feet. Typically there are ground nozzles that spray water upward, and a variety of features that mist, spray, pour, tip and shoot refreshing water. Many features allow kids to interact by using diverters, pushbuttons, push-and-pull handles or foot sensors. New or additional play elements can be added as budgets allow.
A Growing Market
Louis Parent is vice president of operations, and Avery Croteau is a regional sales manager for a Pointe-Claire, Quebec, manufacturer of splash play and related products. Their philosophy is to design their installations and products around the "fundamental tenets of play." They point to social play, where kids interact with one another, and discovery play, where kids can experiment with cause and effect. And they prioritize inclusive play, with people of all ages and abilities taking part in the fun.
"We would like to consider ourselves 'play architects,' in the fact that we understand the best application for our products to ensure maximum play value for all age groups. It is our goal to work alongside our clients as consultants to guide them through this process. Ideally, we take their vision and make it an engaging environment," Croteau said.
They also believe that splash parks can become community destinations, where kids can participate in free play, and parents and neighbors can connect and form relationships as well. This is especially important in disadvantaged communities where there may be fewer opportunities to make social connections. "We have seen so many real-life examples of deserted parks that were brought back to life with a splash pad, bringing the community together," Parent said. They also point out that oftentimes, parents tend to leave the sidelines and join the fun with their kids—much more than with any other play opportunity.
Municipalities and parks and recreation departments are splash park proponents, but more private and commercial venues are considering them as well, as a way to drive attendance. Wyeth Tracy, president of a Stouffville, Ontario-based designer and manufacturer of waterpark and splash park equipment, explained that while they do provide a variety of stand-alone splash parks, it's becoming more common these days to add them to existing aquatic facilities in hotels, resorts and YMCAs. "Theme parks and zoos that are very hot in the summer are adding splash parks to increase length of stay," he said. "And of course, waterparks, historically known for a variety of waterslides and wave pools, have discovered that the little ones have tremendous 'pester power,' which will sway the parents to a certain venue that has children's interactive splash parks. Owners are finding out that, as a result, the whole family visits the park, not just the teens—increasing revenues significantly."
Some campgrounds are also adding water play installations since they realize that on-site offerings help attract customers, and amenities such as a splash park can trigger multi-night stays as opposed to travelers just passing through. Hotels and resorts looking to make their venue a destination know that an aesthetically pleasing splash park can give them a competitive edge, since kids can engage in safe water play for hours while adults relax. And large retail establishments and shopping centers that are constantly competing with online vendors are discovering that interactive splash parks are a great draw for families with children, helping to turn a shopping trip into an entertainment experience. Other places that splash parks are popping up include fitness centers, amusement parks, aquariums, housing developments, homeowner associations and military bases.
When it comes to actual splash park features and products, there are hundreds of choices, with new ones being developed all the time. There are posts, hoops, arches and domes that spray and mist. Dumping buckets, troughs and tippers splash from above, while ground sprays and jets hit you from below. Multi-play structures are popular, boasting multiple features that splash and spray. Some are climbable or feature slides. And while kids may find these products irresistibly fun, they sometimes provide a deeper function, too.
Croteau explained that a majority of their play products offer an extra dimension of play value. "We have many technologies that challenge the patrons physically with the ability to turn, spin and adjust the play products," he said. "There's also a mental challenge as well. Many of our play products are designed to create an opportunity to see cause and effect or to collaborate with a friend. This pushes the cognitive ability of the user."
Oftentimes, venues choose to go with a theme for their installation. Greg Stokes, managing director of an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based company that designs interactive waterpark and splash park products, feels that the popularity of themed splash parks ebbs and flows with the economy, and with the types of projects that their customers are bringing. "Some of the most highly requested designs are nautical, plantscape and sports themes."
Tracy agrees that theming can be popular, saying that they offer a signature generic theme along with a variety of themes, such as tropical, marine, circus, jungle, zoo, wild west, barnyard, pirates and even Christmas. "Our latest theme to be introduced this year is an interactive water playground filled with cupcakes, candies, popsicles and a variety of colorful sweets."
If your venue wants to create a design using your own custom theme, there are manufacturers that can accommodate your imagination. Tracy's company creates theming to a certain extent, as long as it follows their design content. Stokes' company can also create custom themes: "We enjoy collaborating with our customers to create themes that reflect the heritage of the location."
And what about age zones—is it important to keep the youngest water enthusiasts separated from the older and potentially more active users? Stokes said they design spray parks to welcome different age groups. "By designing age-appropriate zones—Gentle Activity Zones for kids aged 2 to 4, Universal Family Zones for all ages, and Dynamic Zones for kids aged 7 and up—visitors to the splash park have a more positive experience and everyone stays safe."
Croteau said they also design to meet the needs of different age groups. "Our bay concept allows us to create spaces that are unique to a specific age group but also congruent with the rest of the splash pad. The idea here is to provide an area appropriate for the different types of play experiences while keeping a certain level of safety in mind."
Tracy added that, in large installations, the preschool splash park is often a separate area altogether.
Beyond the Wading Pool
Some parks and municipalities are looking for economical ways to update their older, "tired" wading pools—whether it's for mechanical reasons, code reasons or simply to bring some added pizzazz to attract more customers. "Currently, we do more stand-alone splash pad projects. However, we're beginning to see a trend of existing wading pools being converted into splash pads," Stokes said.
There are a couple of directions to go when converting or retrofitting a wading pool to accommodate a splash pad. The new splash pad can be built on top of the existing structure, or the pool can be completely removed with the splash pad being installed in its place. Splash park designers or contractors can assist in assessing existing conditions to come up with the best plan. Some factors include drainage and drainage slopes, conditions of existing plumbing and mechanical systems, local codes, fencing and lighting. Certain splash park features can also simply be bolted to the pool, transforming a shallow wading pool into an interactive splash pad. These products have self-contained pumps, eliminating the need for an external water feed, and can typically be used in as little as six inches of water.
Croteau explained that a lot of facilities are looking to add amenities to their current offering. "However, we often find customers who are just getting their feet wet with the idea of adding an aquatic facility, and a splash pad is a great starting point."
Otter Cove, in St. Charles, Ill., is a state-of-the-art aquatic facility that features a lap pool with diving boards and drop slides, a toddler pool, a zero-depth entry activity pool, a lazy river, concessions and more. But it all started with a splash park, featuring spray loops, dumping buckets, spray cannons, bubblers, geysers, spray columns, water wheels and a shaded sand-play area.
"The splash park opened in 2005 as a stand-alone facility. Parent/adult admissions were free, and the entry fee was charged per child. After several years of success in the community, a referendum was passed to add on to the park, creating Otter Cove Aquatic Park in 2011," said Jennifer Bruggeman, assistant superintendent of recreation at the St. Charles Park District.
Now, even with all the other amenities, Bruggeman said the splash park is still popular, being utilized mostly by young kids. "Older siblings will visit the younger kids for a while to cool off in the shaded sand area, or play in the spray features for a while before returning to the larger park area. There are interactive spray areas allowing children to aim at each other and a great dump bucket that has just enough water to cause a splash."
No lifeguards are necessary in the splash park area, though Bruggeman said park admissions staff rotate through the park, checking for safety and enforcing rules. And while full-facility rental opportunities are available at Otter Cove, Bruggeman said that splash park-only rentals are also popular, typically in the mornings before regular hours. "Family birthday parties, neighborhood picnics, local daycares, churches and preschool sporting groups are usually our splash-only customers."
These days, water consumption is a hot topic, and it's only going to come under more scrutiny going forward. "It's true that water is a precious resource," Parent said, explaining that their products and technologies are designed not only for safety and quality, but also with a focus on the water itself. "We've developed proprietary technologies to reduce the water consumption. And we also offer a variety of options with respect to water quality management systems, controllers and splash-pad sequencing."
Tracy echoed this: "Water quality and use management are very important, and our designs are developed to use as little water as possible while recirculating the water using the most efficient water quality equipment."
There are three types of systems for managing water use. Flow-through or domestic systems use potable water, which goes through the splash pad and then is returned to the municipal wastewater system, where it might be used for irrigation or percolated back to the water table. Repurposing systems bypass the wastewater system, as the water is transferred to a holding tank after it passes through the play area. It is then sent through a filtration and disinfection system, and eventually used for surface or sub-surface irrigation. These two systems require relatively low maintenance. Finally, recirculation systems use water that is held in a subterranean tank. After it's fed through the water-play features, it's returned to the tank, where it's filtered, chemically treated, sometimes heated, and then recycled back through the play area. These systems are the most efficient.
"We promote the use of recirculation systems as it greatly enhances the water-play experiences as well as conserves water. In general, having a splash pad with a recirculation system will save 15 million gallons of water annually," said Stokes, adding that since the water is recirculated, there is more water and more interactive value for providing big water effects. "However, recirculation systems require trained staff to maintain the system and ensure the water is safe for public use." He also said they're seeing more splash park operators converting their domestic systems to recirculation systems, to save water as well as water costs.
Back at Otter Cove, Bruggeman shared some of their green initiatives: "The water is heated, treated and filtered like any one of our pools, thus saving on water," she said. "We use variable frequency drives on our water feature and filter pumps to save on electricity consumption. All of our bathroom facilities are low-flow, sensor-operated flush valves and lavatory faucets."
She added that the holding tank for the water features is 2,800 gallons, and it needs to be dumped and cleaned frequently, since it can turn blue from the blue tiles on the pad surfacing. They originally had a poured-in-place surface, but delaminating caused them to go with tiles, which Bruggeman said have a tendency to curl and create a trip step at the edges. "Poured-in-place, and soft surface tiles don't react well to chemically treated water."
Surfacing, Lighting & Other Trends
While there are many types of surfaces available, splash pads can be tough on surfacing. "Any surfacing used needs to be rated for and tested in aquatic environments. It should be able to withstand the constant impact from the weather and chemical elements found in a splash pad," Croteau said.
Tracy suggested that "anyone installing a surface obtain a good guarantee to ensure that proper workmanship is carried out."
One feature that's continuing to evolve is lighting for splash parks, as it can be both functional and eye-catching. "This is a great way to extend operation hours or even get dual purpose from your splash pad. We've seen a lot of communities use the splash pad for play in the day and as an aesthetic in the evening. Adding lights can really amplify the nighttime look," Croteau said.
Facilities can go a step farther by using LED lights, which can be used with many ground-spray products, and water-feature sequencing to design a choreographed light show for nighttime entertainment as well as off-season displays.
And what about other "hot" trends in products or design? Stokes said that many customers are interested in splash pad designs with a more urban aesthetic. "We're creating products with contemporary curves, modern color schemes and industrial-looking materials like translucent plastics and brushed stainless steel finishes." Tracy explained that composite and specialty plastics allow them to continually present new forms and water feature designs. "Plastics have the advantage of low heat and electrical conductivity while eliminating the use of expensive foundations required for metal structures."
Children and adults alike will continue to be drawn to water, both for how it refreshes and captivates us. And those who design splash park products and facilities will continue to find new, wondrous ways to wet our appetites.
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