A World of Play

Trends in Playground Planning & Design


Todd Newman has a problem in common with many parks and rec managers, and perhaps the nation's infrastructure supervisors, in general: equipment and structures badly in need of an update.

"They're starting to show their age in how they operate mechanically and how well they stay put together," said Newman, parks director for the town of Chanute, Kan. "We're doing a lot of maintenance on them yearly."

And if age weren't an issue, said Newman, lack of excitement sure is.

"I would drive through the parks, and only one out of the seven parks we have is really being used," said Newman. "They're bored with the equipment and design of the old ones. Now we have the same problem because all they want to use is the new one."

The "new one" is a sensory playground that replaces a rock-climbing-themed park that Newman said was "literally rocks painted colors" and was about 40 years old. When he took the job three years ago, Newman set out to provide a new playground, and once he saw inclusive playgrounds at an event held by the Kansas Recreation and Park Association, he knew what type to build.

Inclusive playgrounds are one of the latest trends in playground concepts for parks and recreation departments nationwide, and Newman had no trouble selling his idea to the parks board. He then got the support of an autism group.

"They helped out with fundraising and the design stages of equipment to help make sure all the equipment was right and would get used," Newman said. "I didn't want children standing around admiring the equipment if they couldn't use it. There's nothing worse than seeing a parent or guardian bring a kid to a playground, and they have to sit on a bench because a limitation keeps them from using it. We wanted to make sure that didn't happen. The community needed a playground they could be proud of."

The city chose a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that advances play through research, education and partnership, infusing this learning into a family of brands, including play equipment, motivated by the company's research around designing for inclusive play, as well as the chance to be a "National Demonstration Site." Newman said there was a budget of $350,000 from start to finish, including the playground, parking lots and a new restroom.

"I felt like that budget got us to where we needed to be to give the community the best playground possible," Newman said. "We made our budget around the playground rather than setting a budget first. I wanted to make sure we did this right since it had been so long since the community had a new playground."

Michele Chandler, director of marketing for the Chattanooga-based company, said the evolution of materials in playground equipment has boosted inclusive play areas. The introduction of a polyurethane foam material, coated with a durable, weather-resistant polyurea skin creates unique textures, she said.


"These textures, interesting shapes and stimulating colors provide a variety of sensations to the user, especially important for children with sensory and social/emotional disabilities," Chandler said. One of the company's brands recently launched a new product line that brings "… innovative, inclusive playground designs to communities," she added. "These products introduce new types of materials to the play space, such as new shapes, sounds and textures that encourage a child to use all five of their senses as they engage in play."

Electronic innovation helps as well, Chandler said. For example, one of the new products features a ground-level platform that creates piano or drum sounds when pressure is applied. Another includes electronic sensors that are installed on the walls of an inclusive climber, allowing users to activate sounds by either touching the sensor or plugging in an adaptive switch to activate a response from the sensor.

"Adaptive switch technology allows users with limited fine motor skills the ability to independently activate our sensors," Chandler said. "This technology has never before been adapted for a playground environment."

There has been a rise in requests for inclusive playgrounds, Chandler said. Driving the increase is higher awareness of the needs of all users of public parks, schools and communities.

"Moving beyond just accessibility, or physical access, is especially important, but also focusing on user experience is more important than ever," Chandler said. "We have focused the design of our play environments to support the needs of the whole child. Creativity and innovation are paramount in ensuring that the play environment is universally designed and developmentally appropriate to the greatest extent possible. This requires the engagement of important stakeholders in the planning and execution of the play space."

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."

Play Innovations

Norquist said innovation comes in a lot of forms, and he said out-of-the-box thinking is one of them.

"Materials haven't changed that much in the last few years; most manufacturers are still using some form of the same materials—plastics, steel, aluminum, GFRC, cables and nets," he said. "But how these materials are used, and what they can accomplish, can be innovative."


Philosophies can change as well, said Norquist. Multigenerational play has been driving many playground designs over the past several years, with playground innovations that allow caretakers to play alongside their charges. For example, a swing enables parents and children to play face-to-face and eye-to-eye and experience the scientific principle of attunement during play.

"They promote adult play, they encourage parent-child bonding, and they reinforce playful behaviors throughout our life cycle," he said.

Outdoor fitness products like challenge courses are also multigenerational, encouraging people of all ages to be more playful together. It appeals to a wide range of users, from all walks of life, play styles and socioeconomic backgrounds. Similarly, Chandler said she's seen a rise in the integration of fitness equipment around the perimeter of the play space.

"This innovative environment provides two major benefits: parents, grandparents and caregivers have a front-row view of their children playing on the playground, while they exercise, enabling unrestricted access to clear supervision as well as the obvious role modeling provided by their visible fitness activity," Chandler said.

Find the Right Partners

With so many options, Norquist said it's important to understand the evolving needs of clients as well. Every client is different, and every client has different goals and objectives. For some, budget is a driver. For others, innovation is a driver; they want the latest and greatest products. For still others, it's all about customer service—creating a positive user experience.

"The common thread for all of these clients, however, is they want to make sure they have a partner, someone who has the expertise, experience and resources to help them through each step of the project," said Norquist. "Designing and building a play and recreation space is an important part of building community and social capital, so it's critical to work with a vendor who lives, works and plays in your community and is equally committed to the success of your project."

Norquist said it's important to look at each build in terms of the project, and not just the equipment. Because there's so much that goes into creating a recreation space beyond just a play structure, such as surfacing, shade, site amenities and site work, all parties should make sure the project is well-planned and designed to meet the needs of the community.

"We think in terms of projects that enrich childhood and solutions that build communities," he said. "Playgrounds of tomorrow will emphasize the user experience across a broad generational spectrum and serve a diverse range of abilities. There will be a blending of the natural environment with manufactured product. We see technology being infused with play equipment, particularly with 'cause and effect' type games and activities. All of this will be centered around universal design practices."

Chandler sees a future of new client requests and industry response to new generations' needs.

"With the continued introduction of new materials that allow for customization, and the demand for more inclusive play environments, we believe that our industry will continue to respond with innovation that continues to engage children of all abilities and their parents," she said. "We are encouraged by the fitness trend, most likely driven by baby boomers who continue to focus on a healthy lifestyle, and the benefits of outdoor exercise."