Splash Play: The Art of Fun!

Inclusion on the Splash Pad

Observe a splash pad for a few minutes and you learn a lot about how people play. Mom and baby may be dipping into a milestone experience together. Grandparents proudly watch their little ones master the waterslide. A spray tunnel channels a flurry of traffic by foot and wheelchair, while elsewhere a child calmly manipulates a flowing stream of water. This tremendous capacity to support individuals collectively is an exciting feat, and it hinges on a key ingredient: fun. People engage voluntarily and spontaneously when they're having fun.


To ensure our parks are hitting the mark when it comes to inclusion, we need to examine the motivating impulse that ultimately drives people to play. Here's how to unleash the fun factor in your splash pad when choosing products, organizing space and knowing your audience.

Who Wants to Play?

Look closely. Is there a particular segment in your community that isn't being served? It could be a burgeoning demographic of young parents, youth at risk or neglected cultural groups and income brackets awaiting a safe place to play close to home. With only two in five U.S. parks agencies having formal inclusion policies, according to the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and persisting struggles with childhood obesity and declining outdoor play, we have a way to go on closing the gap.

Engaging otherwise disengaged groups has a lot to do with curb appeal: give them a beautiful, inviting public space that can be marketed to people of all abilities and backgrounds. The splash pad can do a lot of heavy lifting here. By harnessing the universal appeal of water, it has a unique capacity to tease out the innermost play instincts of multiple individuals simultaneously. Meanwhile, its zero-depth playscape eliminates barriers of access and risk to help level the playing field for all abilities and generations.

Such a phenomenon stretches over 8,600 square feet of Winnipeg's downtown core. In 2010 the city set out to transform an underserved, high-risk area into a safe welcoming play space for local families by building an aesthetically pleasing public spray park. The impact was transformative. Similarly, a new park for Hamden, Conn., greets visitors and passersby alike with an architectural cluster of spray features. Giant spraying leaves and a perched butterfly offer gentle spray patterns, but also amplify the soothing effects of nature.

No matter what your goals, start by making the space inspiring for multiple groups.

Play Features That Motivate

You've extended the invitation, now for the main event: play time. Casting the right features will have a direct impact on whether people participate. Not only is this critical to a well-used space, but it makes room for the vast developmental benefits of free, unstructured play—a threatened pastime amidst increasingly scheduled family routines. Help your community reconnect with play for its pure enjoyment by choosing equipment that aligns with universal design principles of flexible, simple and intuitive use. For example, does your spray arch allow wheelchair users easy access according to ADA standards? Is the transfer station on your water play structure evident to those with mobility impairments, and is your park activator easy to find and use?


Great play features will give kids visual and tactile clues to uncover their intended water effects. Play features designed for action-reaction experiences and sensory encounters can go beyond standards of accessibility. Instead of on-off-button activators, you can find fun-to-use activators that set water effects into motion, starting play with play.

Conversely, physically intensive features with little tolerance for error can undermine the free play experience. For example a 12-foot-high play structure may exhaust a child's energy. As part of a recent renovation project, Apex Center Pool in Arvada, Colo., replaced its outdated pool structure (involving a staggering climb to a waterslide) with a new tower that introduces strategic elevations and two spacious play pods where kids are given enough room to explore spray effects, interact and collaborate with their peers. ADA transfer stairs and clear sightlines through the tower panels put caretakers at ease as children explore independently, building their confidence through free self-initiated play.

It's just as important to think off the pad when applying universal design principles. Are the restrooms easy to get to? Could a wheelchair user access the amenities? Step back and evaluate your entire site as if you were the guest, or invite someone with a mobility impairment to provide their perspective. The goal is to make the experience as seamless as possible, from parking to navigating the entire facility.

Play Zones: Keeping Them Curious

How do you keep them coming back for more? Philosophies of play show us that people benefit most when play triggers new discoveries. This understanding is explained by early childhood development expert, Dr. Beverlie Dietze, as a cycle of curiosity. It begins with inquiry and flows into exploration, experimentation and mastery: "I think… I wonder… What if? Aha!" By organizing space on the splash pad we make room for this cycle and build the momentum for all users.

Start by planning dedicated areas for transitional moments, peaceful pauses and bursts of action buffered by clear, connecting paths of access. This will encourage a steady flow of activity between zones while also meeting ADA standards of accessibility.


While the play industry traditionally categorizes zones by age group, emerging perspectives point to even greater, age-less, possibilities for inclusion. It isn't unusual to see a rambunctious toddler reaching for a water cannon or a big sister sitting to patter in ground sprays with her younger sibling. A play style approach to splash pad zones—for discovery, exploration and adventure—shifts the focus toward individual play preferences and energy levels.

A discovery zone with gentle spray textures, fascinating weirs and meandering streams provides a calm space for thoughtful play. This zone may appeal to toddlers, children with autism or other cognitive disabilities, or anyone seeking a comfortable spot to sit and relax.

An exploration zone introducing more stimulation (tipping buckets) and physically engaging activities (aim and spray), serves as a stepping-stone to new experiences, skill building and collaboration. Here, both young and experienced waterplayers will find opportunities to step out of their comfort zone and take on new challenges. A high-energy adventure zone for non-stop action and exhilarating splashes will serve those craving excitement and uninhibited fun. In tandem, play zones reward all ages and abilities, allowing them to author their own adventures. Balancing the energy ensures kids and adults can shift between contrasting activities, without exhausting their enthusiasm.

Dream Big, Start Small

Communities that play together, stay together. To reap the rewards of inclusive play, we can't forget about the fun. Your community can jumpstart this process in its own backyard by taking an informal inventory of its parks and recreation spaces. Maybe adding a picnic area would draw new visitors to your splash pad? Even a small change can start to turn the tide. As professionals of fun, we can help shift the statistics on inclusivity by provoking more people to play. Together we can use deliberate and thoughtful design interventions to make the quality of life in our communities better and more fun.



Melinda Pearson is a business development manager for Waterplay Solutions and has more than 20 years of experience in the aquatics industry. She is currently working with several municipal parks and recreation entities to realize their goals of project development from the early programming phase through to completion. For more information, visit: www.waterplay.com.


Melinda Pearson