Get Moving, Get Playing!
Active Playgrounds for Kids on the Go
While it seems like kids are getting tethered to their electronic devices earlier than ever, often causing them to be more sedentary, they do still possess an inherent desire to get outside and burn off some energy.
"Play is natural to kids, and allowing them to get the needed physical exercise in a way that works with them brings the least amount of resistance and the most benefits. With all of the other distractions—video games, devices and other technology—kids are in need of engaging activities to help them stay active," according to Sarah Lisiecki and Brian Johnson, the marketing communications specialist and chief marketing officer, respectively, for a Wisconsin-based company that manufactures playground equipment.
Playground designers and manufacturers, understanding that playgrounds are still a great way to engage kids, strive to create new designs and products that will not only be fun and alluring, but will encourage exercise as well. "Playing on a properly designed playground makes exercise fun, and kids don't realize they're getting so many health benefits just by playing," said Lisiecki and Johnson, adding that playing on playground equipment provides kids with a full-body workout. "From cardiovascular to agility and balance to strength, kids will improve their overall fitness and combat obesity while participating in a fun and natural activity."
Lisiecki and Johnson explained that their goal is to give kids a play experience that helps them develop in a variety of ways—physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively. "Having the ability to combine traditional and active, fitness-based play helps us offer all types of play that is accessible to all children."
Many fitness-inspired play systems fuse fitness challenges with traditional play events. Climbing boulders, playground zip lines with swinging ropes and cables, steppers, rings and ladders, sliding poles and pull-up bars all promote physical play. Playground climbing walls and panels with hand and foot holds and other climbing amenities can be freestanding or connected to other structures. There are new takes on traditional monkey bars, featuring various shapes, sizes and configurations. A variety of rope structures, bridges, platforms and ramps are available, which can connect to play structures, creating infinite design options.
Kent Callison, director of marketing for a Tennessee-based commercial playground equipment manufacturer that also offer fitness-inspired playground designs for children and outdoor fitness equipment for adolescents and adults of all ages and abilities, cited a study conducted years ago by Dr. Joe Frost that found that children lacked the upper-body strength of children a generation ago. "He published his findings, and playground manufacturers began to look at ways to include brachiating (overhead climbing) activities on play systems like overhead ladders, rings and other overhead activities."
SHAPE America (Society of Health and Physical Educators), the nation's largest membership organization of health and physical education professionals, has a vision of "A nation where all children are prepared to lead healthy, physically active lives." Callison explained that SHAPE America has published a curriculum called Play On!, which documents the six essential elements of physical play: climbing, brachiating, spinning, sliding, swinging and balancing. "Playgrounds that incorporate each of these elements, and in varying degrees of difficulty, align with national standards for physical education and encourage children to engage in more physical activity in a fun way," he said.
The Play On! initiative was created to "promote physical fitness and fun through the use of well-designed outdoor play environments and creative playground learning activities." The authors believe that the selection of playground equipment and the overall design of the outdoor play environment can benefit children in a variety of ways, providing activities that engage, motivate and challenge them, as well as developing important fitness skills. They feel that the recommended playground activities, when aligned with the aforementioned six key elements of play, can help schools, parks and activity centers maximize the potential of their playgrounds. Their curriculum guidebook includes the 125 standards-based playground activities for grades pre-K through 5; assessment worksheets and equipment lists; safety, implementation, inclusion and teaching strategies; design strategies; and funding resources.
Michelle Carter, senior program manager at SHAPE America, believes that effective health and physical education programs in schools are a great start as far as educating kids about fitness. "Play On! is a great tool for playground managers or teachers to use to get their kids more active. It allows for student engagement and fosters creativity by allowing students to explore the playground equipment in different ways."
She pointed out that both kids and adults are more sedentary than ever. "By teaching kids how to be physically active and the benefits of physical activity, the more likely they will continue to be physically active into adulthood."
So do schools, parks and cities seem to be embracing efforts to design their play spaces to involve more physical activity? Yes, according to Lisiecki and Johnson. "For example, the Chicago Park District introduced the Chicago Plays! initiative, to help bring parks within walking distance of all Chicago residents."
They said there is an ROI (return on investment) factor as well, as numerous studies cite increased property values and tourism, economic development and a reduction of municipal service costs when such initiatives are realized. "People are realizing the positive impact physical activity has on everyone, and the response has been more play spaces that focus on getting kids, neighbors and families out and moving."
Callison said the Play On! initiative has been a major driver for parks and schools nationwide that utilize the curriculum to extend their physical education classes onto the playground. "It's also a great way for community parks and rec centers to program their playgrounds during the summer months and during after-school programs." Callison also sees communities creating areas within their parks for multigenerational physical activity, by providing, for example, a playground for younger children, an obstacle course for older children and adults, and outdoor fitness products for parents and seniors. "It's a great way to encourage the entire family to be more active together. It's changed the way communities plan parks."
In 2011, the city of Graham, N.C., purchased approximately 120 acres to build Graham Regional Park, which will be developed in phases over many years. "Creating a park that promotes physical activity for multiple generations is the driving vision for Graham Regional Park," said Brian Faucette, director of recreation and parks for Graham.
The first section opened in April 2017, and includes a natural playground with many amenities that get kids moving: three large climbing boulders; a double slide built into a hill; a custom treehouse featuring a double-spiral slide, swings and a 100-foot zip line; a log crawl-through tube and other features for kids to climb on. Faucette explained that these elements were incorporated into a shaded space around mature poplar trees. "The natural beauty of the land inspired the specific elements we ultimately chose." They chose an EWF (engineered wood fiber) surface as it provides safety, but also fits the natural playground aesthetics.
Next to the playground is a popular challenge course, with "ninja-style" obstacles. "The challenge course has the designation of youth simply due to the height and spacing of the equipment," Faucette said. "Parents are often seen running the course alongside their children."
Under the course is artificial turf with infill. "We'll need to implement a maintenance schedule to groom the turf to make sure the common path through the equipment is not prematurely worn out."
Faucette said the zip line is also a huge hit. "It's rated for use by a person weighing up to 250 pounds, and we've witnessed many adults reliving their childhood on the zip line." An adult challenge course is also planned.
There are also four stations of exercise equipment that have proven popular, with each station featuring four exercise elements with at least one accessible element in each. And there is a 16-foot wide multi-use trail around the park. "We marked the trail with designated bike and walk lanes and designed the layout so each pod is encircled by the trail, creating an opportunity for adults to exercise while children play," Faucette said, adding that the community has really embraced the unique elements and multi-generational play the park offers.
Indeed, updated versions of the classic obstacle course are extremely popular these days. "Challenge courses have been an enormous hit. Park directors love them because they offer a new way to encourage people to visit parks. Many times these courses are installed near traditional playgrounds to create a multigenerational recreation space," Callison said. He described Schaper Park, a project they completed in Golden Valley, Minn., where a challenge course and 40-yard dash were installed adjacent to a fully-inclusive playground, creating a unique destination for families of all abilities.
These courses are great for children who have outgrown traditional playgrounds, as well as teenagers and adults who enjoy competitive fitness activities. Callison said they offer a series for middle and high schools, parks and universities with a size and scale appropriate for users age 13 and up, as well as a series designed for elementary schools and parks because it meets the standards for children ages 5 to 12.
The courses also utilize an optional timing app that tracks your success, can compare your time with users across the country, and features real-time results and leader boards. "The app also allows park directors to see the number of people using the course, as well as anonymous data such as return visits, age range of users, etc.," Callison said. Other course accessories include timing systems, photo booth and sound effect systems.
The Play On! initiative was created to "promote physical fitness and fun through the use of well-designed outdoor play environments and creative playground learning activities."
Lisiecki and Johnson's company also offers fitness course options, providing challenging physical obstacles that an individual or team can take on. They feature three levels of challenge and multiple options within each level, offering an exercise experience for beginner, intermediate or advanced users. There's a design for age 5 to 12, and one for ages 13 and up. "Taking adolescents and getting them outside and engaged with family and friends is part of our mission that this new product line supports," Lisiecki and Johnson said. They explained that one of the main drivers in developing this equipment is the fact that adolescents aged 12 to 19 have the highest obesity rate of all children—just over 20 percent.
Fitness circuit options are available as well, according to Lisiecki and Johnson, featuring equipment focusing on muscle building and toning with body weight exercises and a cardio workout that can be tailored to a variety of fitness levels. There are designs for age 5 to 12 and 13 and up, and the equipment can be placed in clusters or along a trail.
As with the obstacle courses, more parks are adding fitness equipment close to their play spaces. "It's a great way for adults to set the example for children, and a great way to maximize the usage of the park," Callison said. Offerings include sit-up stations, push-up stations and chin-up bars; chest, leg and arm presses; cardio walkers; plyo boxes, step trainers and balance beams. If space is precious, Callison said compact systems are available, for example, one that allows 10 people to perform up to 21 different exercises at the same time in as little as 450 square feet.
Lukas Steinke, CEO of a South Carolina-based play equipment company that specializes in rope-play equipment, said that rope structures are ideal for encouraging more physical play. "Rope is superior to other materials when creating more active and fitness-play, as its flexibility increases challenge and conditioning."
Rope structures and netscapes offer kids plenty of opportunity for crawling, swinging, balancing and climbing. "Equipment height helps motivate climbing—the higher, the better," Steinke said. Indeed, many structures reach beyond 20 feet tall, with a giant rope pyramid reaching nearly 30 feet. Yet, due to the geometry of the net, at no point is there a freefall risk greater than six feet.
The modular rope structures can be combined and have many add-ons available: hand-over-hand loop ropes and ladders; swinging cables; climbing ropes; spider webs and other climbing structures; ramps, transfer stations and slides; various bridges like the wobbly bridge, suspension bridge and jungle bridge. Their low ropes courses act as obstacle courses, with elements close to the ground; think slack lines and tight ropes. Adults sometimes use them for motor-skills training, or just for fun.
Steinke explained that well-engineered rope systems are very durable, and their oldest net climbers still in use were built in the late 1970s. Plus, they offer good accessibility. "Rope offers a new level of inclusivity; since in a net everything is interconnected, actions of one user (for example, jumping) affect all other users," Steinke said. "The sensation of interdependence include everybody, it's not limited to certain abilities."
Most of the play elements have a low access height, and are easy to reach from a wheelchair. A swinging net or special swing seats for disabled individuals can be used for swinging.
As far as striving to get those with special needs more active, too, Callison said it's always a consideration. "We encourage customers to include playground products that promote physical activity for every person, regardless of ability."
He said they consider how the space and the products therein will be accessible to the greatest extent possible, addressing the needs of the whole person, the whole community. "By doing so, we ensure the space provides physical, social, communicative, emotional, cognitive and sensory benefits for everyone."
Lisiecki and Johnson agree, saying manufacturers and designers need to focus on play for everyone, no matter age or ability. "Everyone needs exercise, and designing spaces where everyone can play together and gain the physical benefits of play has become more and more necessary."
They mentioned their inclusive spinner as an example, pointing out that kids gain cardiovascular exercise while pushing it, while other kids can ride in positions of varying difficulty on the spinner. "Kids that may use a mobility device can sit safely in specially designed seats that provide security, but also help them challenge their core strength, something that often needs development in children."
Another playground option that promotes exercise is nature or trail-based play. "We pioneered the idea of play trails," Callison said, "installing pockets of nature-themed play activities along a trail or greenway. They encourage families to reconnect with nature and with one another."
This includes crawl-through tunnels and tubes, balance beams, nets and tree climbers. They also worked with the Nature Learning Initiative at NC State to introduce the Nature Grounds program, a guide for bringing natural elements like trees, shrubs and other plantings into the manufactured play environment. "This provides a more calming environment and increases the diversity of play experiences and levels of physical activity."
Childhood and adult obesity are major concerns, and Callison pointed out that 10 percent of adults and 5 percent of children have Type II diabetes. But he added that these conditions, in large part, can be reversed or controlled through more physical activity.
"We have an opportunity to help communities live healthier lives. We can empower the next generation, those between the ages of 4 and 22, the so-called Generation Z. Playgrounds and recreation areas are the key to a healthy Gen Z!"