Choose Your Own Adventure

Assess Needs, Get Input to Select the Right Play Equipment

By Deborah L. Vence

One of the most important things to do when selecting playground equipment is "gathering input to ensure the playground meets the needs of the community," said Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that offers a wide range of brands focused on play and recreation products and services.

"Holding community meetings to help understand their needs and preferences helps ensure the space meets the widest appeal possible as well as get community buy-in, create a sense of ownership and build community capital," she said.

"Be sure to have some images of possibilities to share with the community, which you can obtain from your playground supplier. Many people are visual when it comes to products they aren't familiar with, so sharing images of options may help move the conversation in meaningful ways," Spencer said, adding that it's also helpful to determine the ages of the children who will be using the space.

For example, children younger than 5 "will benefit from activities that test motor skills, strength, agility and creative thinking, such as climbing over, under and around things, traversing smaller steps, and having crawl spaces that promote exploring," she said. "This age group is also forming social skill development, so offer areas where children can begin to interact with others. Play equipment might include crawl tunnels, small slides, enclosed play spaces, activity panels for fine motor skills and decks of modest height, low platforms, ramps with pieces attached for grasping, tricycle paths and sand areas."

Children ages 5 to 12 are ready for bigger challenges—both physically and intellectually—and will benefit from play equipment with higher platforms and swings, more challenging climbers, larger slides, rope and net climbers, monkey bars and upper-body equipment.

"This equipment should be separate from the younger children's play area," Spencer said. "For all ages, be sure to address equitable play experiences for children of all abilities so there are integrated opportunities for all children to play instinctively."

Sarah Lisiecki, CPSI, marketing communications specialist and play educator for a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based commercial outdoor playground equipment manufacturer for schools, daycare/childcare, and parks and recreation, agreed that the first step in selecting equipment is conducting a needs assessment.

"Figure out the age and number of children you are looking to accommodate," Lisiecki said. "Also, take into consideration the space you have to work with, the budget and the objectives of the project. Work with a partner that can help you through this process and that will assist with all of the other guidelines you need to comply with—ADA being one example. Make certain the manufacturer's products are IPEMA certified.

"Here, the design process, the fun part, begins!" she continued. "It's important to have a variety of play components that help children develop in all areas—social, emotional, physical, cognitive and sensory.


"In addition to play variety," she said, "areas where all children can play together without barriers are extremely important. They foster empathy, understanding and reduce stigmas that are often present in classrooms or other settings. With about 15 percent of children having some sort of differing ability, be it vision-related, neurological (e.g., autism), hearing-related, cognitive (e.g., Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome) or ambulatory, having a fully inclusive and universally designed play space is more important than ever.

"When we think about playgrounds, we tend to think about children, [which is] definitely logical," Lisiecki said. "However, caregivers—sometimes parents, grandparents or others—are the ones who accompany children to the playground. Making sure they are comfortable and engaged means children get to spend more time playing, and that is the best possible scenario. Having integrated seating for these caregivers allows them to supervise and be part of the experience while still allowing children to play.

"Also," she added, "products that are geared toward intergenerational play are key to building those relationships."

Many factors should drive the decision for selecting equipment, such as budget, age-appropriateness, accessibility and route of travel, existing grades, sun exposure, aesthetics, themes, truck access for installation crews and available access to power and water, said Tim Nolan, president of a playground equipment supplier in Phoenix, Ariz.

When selecting play equipment, "you should always allow for age separation and some level of access," Nolan said.

"After accounting for that, the two most important factors are balance of play and rotation of play for an overall safe, fun, challenging and memorable playground," he said. "A balance between dynamic climbers and slides properly positioned to allow for a safe rotation of play that encourages safe flow patterns will result in an exciting playground. Keeping the users engaged, moving and stimulated is the main ingredient that differentiates between a static playground and a dynamic playground."

Another suggestion by John A. Amici, president of a company in Havre de Grace, Md., that specializes in commercial playground equipment, safety surfacing, site amenities, aquatic play features and more, is to choose a suitable location for your new playground.

"Once you have the area set, then you can begin to consider play equipment. The right equipment will be fun, age-appropriate and compliant with all applicable guidelines," Amici said.

"To make your playground fun, be sure to include a variety of components that offer a 'graduation of challenges' for the user," he added. "This will keep them coming back. Know who will be using the equipment and design it for that age group. Know who you are working with and be sure that your playground design meets all CPSC guidelines and AS™ standards for public playground safety. Your design should be clearly marked as compliant."

Kit Steven, president of a play equipment design, distribution and specialty contracting firm in Oakland Calif., noted the following in selecting playground equipment:

  • "The fundamental elements are age-appropriateness, available space and budget."
  • "There is always the desire to incorporate the newest components available."
  • "Play value is always a consideration, along with pushing the challenge level—integrating activities to help them stretch their abilities."
  • "Include the seven elements of play where possible." These include: sliding, spinning, balancing, climbing, swinging, brachiating, and sensory.
  • "Think how the children will attack the playground—as we design, run in their shoes, so to speak, to discover how their eyes will draw them from one device to the next. This ensures a well-designed playground that flows, and that will be well-utilized."

Budget also drives the theme of playground equipment.

"The specifics of actual components and apparatus integrated in the design will result from an assessment of age group, number of kids in the play area at a time and asking questions of the customer to determine their feeling about moving pieces of equipment and certain types of slides and climbers," said Bob Ahrens, president of a commercial-grade park and playground equipment consulting and design firm in San Antonio.

Similarly, Eric Huber, vice president of an outdoor recreation equipment distributor in California, suggests asking a lot of questions in order to assess the end user's needs.

"Observe how the park is currently being used (number of users, type, vandalism, etc.). What are the goals of the owner (i.e., destination or neighborhood park)? What is the budget?" he said.

"Choosing the right play equipment depends on your community's needs. Some of the things to consider would be age ranges (playgrounds are divided into ages 2 to 5 and 5 to 12), skill level, inclusiveness, size of area and style."

Meanwhile, Patty Hobson, vice president, inclusion and inclusion specialist for a New Albany, Ohio-based company that designs, supplies, and builds recreational play and site structures, said that "When working with park departments, HOAs or any customer outside of schools, I tell them it's important for them to not install the same type of playground equipment at their parks, etc., that the kids use every day at recess. Duplicating school playgrounds doesn't stir up enough interest in kids to encourage them to go outside and play."

She encourages customers to not put all of their money into a large post-and-platform structure, but instead, to use freestanding structures that offer movement and parent/child interaction, as well as a variety of activities and challenge levels.


For parks, "I tell them having every park in the city looking the same—2-to-5, 5-to-12 and swing set—does not encourage their community to explore their parks," Hobson said. "Some park decision-makers buy this typical playground equipment because it's easy on their end. They just keep duplicating what they already have. Also, this cuts down on neighborhoods complaining that other neighborhoods have nicer playgrounds than what they have."

When it comes to schools, Hobson truly feels that there is a "large percentage of children who we have always classified as typically developing who are not developing typically because of technology/screen time. I suggest playground structures that encourage open-ended play, social interaction and cooperative play opportunities."

She also noted a few points that she brings up with her customers and explains why play spaces and their chosen structures are important.

For example, "Recess is sometimes the only time kids go outside on a typical day. Many kids are told to stay inside when they get home from school until their parents get home from work because it's safer than being outside," she said. "This promotes more screen time. When parents get home from work, it's usually dark outside, and it's also time for dinner and homework."

Also, "Children are not outside spontaneously developing their bodies and their spirits by spinning, bouncing, sliding, climbing, running, etc.," she said. "They are missing the benefits of human interaction, eye-to-eye contact, touch and conversation.

"Children," she added, "are not learning by leading an activity, inventing a game, accepting differences or pretending to be Tarzan. Free unstructured play helps children learn conflict resolution, burn calories, sleep, eat and learn better, unwind, de-stress, become resilient and discover the world outside the walls. The 'free' unstructured play that has always been a part of childhood has decreased substantially through the years."

Stand Out From the Crowd

One way to make your playground stand out is to "Give it a unique look or purpose, for instance: creating a theme, building a destination playground for inclusion, or offering programming," Spencer said.

"Be sure to think about the entire experience, not just the equipment, so include family-friendly amenities like seating, shade, and bike parking to help extend the usage as well as comfort," she said. "Ask your playground supplier to show you the latest innovations; children always appreciate a new and different way to play, which can drive traffic to one play space over other more traditional spaces.

"Think about how to mix nature and the built environment together, as research shows families can get to higher use in spaces with both elements. Also, consider play opportunities designed for the whole family. For instance, there are family-focused obstacle courses designed to accommodate teens and adults as well as children, so the entire family can spend time together being active!" she said.

Lisiecki said there are a variety of ways to make your playground stand out—"from color to a 'hero' product to having a fully inclusive or universally designed play space, you can make your playground unique and meet the needs of the community you are serving."

Including a large climbing structure that accommodates a variety of climbing abilities is another great way to differentiate from other playgrounds.

"Customize your space with post toppers, shades and different colors to give it appeal from the street," she added.

Another great way to bring a community together and create a unique gathering space is by having an outdoor fitness course.

"Obstacle courses bring a variety of ages and abilities together for fitness and fun while providing a different spin on play and fitness," Lisiecki said. "Interesting and fun spinning components, climbing components and even a tower with twisting slides can provide challenges for kids of all abilities. Giving children the space to take risks and learn and grow their skillsets keeps them interested and wanting to come back for more fun."

Customization, theming, color selections, roofs/integrated shades and dynamic design are the obvious "stand out" eye-catching items, Nolan said. And while playground designs can stand out in many ways, the most "blue chip" consistent way is by being user-friendly.

"This happens with a balance of an even mixture and placement of climbing events mixed with a wide selection of sliding components spaced with functioning safety/activity panels," Nolan said.

"A composite play structure should also include directional flow patterns that eliminate bottleneck areas. This can be achieved with bridging and connecting components like nets and climbing rails," he said. "Couple this with dynamic play, functionally-linked ground components, including climbing nets, upper-body components, spinning and motion climbers, and rocking/bouncing components, and this is a formula for a stand-out playground."

He said playgrounds for younger age groups are much more passive, and such play areas stand out with more social and fantasy play areas.

"Many successful play structures in this arena take more advantage of creating forts under decks/platforms," he said. "An easy way to do this is by adding a door type panel, hole or crawl-through style panel accompanied by a counter/store panel. These same style panels can be used to create a maze type of area or section off areas or even used for channeling play through a course to assist with gross motor skills."

He also noted that "The area below deck is also great for integrating musical play like adding drums, piano, chime, guitar and other sounds from components that can be added to posts. There are countless types of activity panels and components that can all plug-and-play multiple applications and configuration. There is really no right or wrong way other than good balance."

Amici suggested including a signature component to make your playground stand out.

"Consider what is unique or special to your community and have a play component customized to bring that to life on the playground. You can even theme the entire play environment around that feature or anything else imaginable," he said.

Ahrens suggested to "Group equipment to have a feeling of space and environment. One activity flows into the next. Contain all of this within a defined border or perimeter, ideally with a sidewalk/pathway. If budget allows, use a synthetic surface, which helps to focus your eyes on the equipment and activities."

What's more, Huber said "Playgrounds are a shared space at the center of our communities that play an essential part in connection, exploration and joy."

Some tips and guidelines to follow would be creating environments in which this can happen. For example, "Are you creating different levels of challenge for all children no matter their disability or development? Is your playground inclusive? Are you following proper safety standards? A professional playground designer with history in your area can guide you to meet these needs. Tap into your inner child to create environments of challenge, curiosity and fun," he said.

"Give the park unique elements that create its own identity. For example, [a] 'climbing park', he said. "Use components that help identify the park, like a mascot. For instance, a large rope climber might become Spider Net Park. Have different themes that give users in a city or area options for destination parks. Incorporate elements that enable kids to create their own identity and their own experience."

Hobson suggests playgrounds include new innovative products. "When possible," she said, "I don't use single large post-and-platform structures for the play space. Freestanding structures offer variety in appearance and play activities. The main reason for including a P&P structure is to provide slides in a play space, although freestanding slides are also an option. Everything else a P&P structure offers (panels, overhead events and climbers) can be freestanding."

Select the Right Surfacing

Choosing the best surfacing for your playground is important, too.

And one crucial factor when making this selection is the maintenance capabilities of your staff, Spencer said.

"While the cost of unitary surfaces like poured rubber or impact-absorbing turf may be higher initially, the cost of maintenance is much lower over the life of the play space," she said. "Engineered wood fiber costs much less initially, but will require regular and ongoing maintenance to ensure it is maintained at a uniform, impact-absorbing depth, especially under active areas like the base of swings and slides. It will also require regular 'top offs' as it is a natural material that decomposes, therefore, reducing the overall depth, which needs to be maintained for proper fall attenuation.

Another deciding factor is the look of the overall space. "Turf and wood fiber provide a great natural appearance, while poured rubber surfaces can accommodate graphics and additional games and activities, which can be inlaid into the surface," Spencer said.

The surfacing depth is determined by the fall height of a playground, and purchasing surfacing from "IPEMA-certified manufacturers also is recommended, as they validate the safety of a participant's products and provide added comfort in your purchase," Lisiecki said.

"After making certain that fall height requirements are met, it's important to note that all surfacing choices must meet ADA standards for accessibility," she said. "Deciding on surfacing is important and can determine what type of experience children and other users will have in your play space."


The most cost-effective solution that meets ADA requirements is engineered wood fiber (EWF).

"Turf is a great option and has the look and feel of real grass and kids really seem to enjoy that," Lisiecki said. "Tiles and poured-in-place (PIP) provide a nice smooth surface and access for everyone. In certain designs it works really well to combine surfacing types to create perceptible boundaries and allow more obvious access to the most exciting parts of the play environment."

Nolan said that surfacing should be selected according to the intended use and budget.

"Above all, any surface considered should be IPEMA certified for compliance to AS™ for both impact attenuation and accessibility standards," he said. "Poured-in-place (PIP) rubber is by no means the least expensive, but it provides so many tangible assets it should always be considered. Not only is it accessible and inclusive, but it is clean and colorful and can contribute to the overall aesthetics of the playground by adding graphics or color mixtures. There are additional items to factor with a PIP rubber surface outside of the initial cost, such as sub-base and annual sealing expenses. A factor that should be considered in the selection process in hotter climates is [that] PIP rubber surfacing gets hot.

"Many times, loose surfacing is selected because of [the] budget, and it later causes frustrations due to unforeseen maintenance expenses, accessibility issues at transition and threshold areas or when integrated with other types of surfacing," Nolan said. "Many times, there [are] vegetation concerns, plus other costs of additional curbing and drainage required for loose surfacing. Every year or two, additional loose surfacing should be added to bring into compliance."

In choosing surfacing, Steven said it is "part of the fact-finding mission, and often is a decision that is pre-determined by the client. It is likely going to be a function of the budget. It is exciting when we can incorporate a colorful poured-in-place surfacing to help create a theme and better stimulates the imagination of the children, but that's not always realistic."

Budget drives this decision, Ahrens noted, as well as environmental factors, such as wind, heat and moisture.

"If the customer is acceptable to putting half of their budget into the surfacing, then a synthetic surface is the best answer for a maintainable, inclusive surface," Ahrens said. "My personal preference is synthetic turf for longevity in our climate, crisp appearance that is maintainable and long-range performance with impact attenuation."

And, while there are many different surfacing options, only a few of them are ADA accessible.

"We often recommend customers go with engineered wood fiber or poured-in-place rubber," Huber said. "You can also use artificial turf with impact-attenuating rubber underneath. The two main things to drive the decision on which surfacing will be based on cost, maintenance, needs of the users and opportunity for phasing—(begin with wood fiber and later convert to PIP)."



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