The Play's the Thing

New Innovations on the Playground


While this year has proved challenging for many of us, one could argue that it has been particularly hard on children. And with schooling and other activities so profoundly disrupted, play and recreation seem more important than ever when it comes to kids' development, as play offers many social, physical, cognitive and emotional benefits. And now, when spending time outdoors is deemed safer than gathering indoors, playgrounds are an even more integral part of that equation. Thankfully, playground and playground equipment designers are pushing forward with new innovations and ideas to help kids reap the benefits of play and to just plain have fun.

One big trend? Net climbers, according to Kent Callison, marketing director for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based firm that designs and manufactures playground equipment. "Kids love to climb—it's hard-wired in a kid's brain to climb, to try to reach a higher level, to get to a different vantage point," he said. "The way that nets work with undulating movement and you have to use your hands and feet and mind all at once—it's a great skill-building product. We're doing a lot of research making sure that nets are developmentally appropriate, a lot of fun and something that includes as many people as possible."

"Rope systems are fun and challenging and have a unique way of making the climbing experience different every time with reactive motion," added Sarah Lisiecki, marketing communications and education specialist for a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based company that designs and manufactures playground equipment. "A child climbing on the other side, for example, moves the rope so another child climbing feels that movement and it changes their overall experience. Kids can pretend they're climbing a mountain, or that the ground is 'lava.' It keeps the experience fresh and exciting."

Play towers—structures that achieve a lot of height—have also been gaining in popularity, and Callison thinks they're about to turn a corner and become even more mainstream, though he cautions that meeting standards is key. "For an 18- or 20-foot tower, you've got to have a surface to attenuate that fall, you have to have the tower itself enclosed. So I think that towers that meet standards are going to be really big in the future.

"The other thing that's getting a lot of traction are the musical instruments," said Callison. "A lot of people offer things that make noise, but I mean actually finding your tuned instrument where you lose that barrier between child and the ability to make music."


He discussed a musical product line his company has been developing along with a Grammy-winning percussionist where the instruments are tuned to a pentatonic scale, so when a user plays more than one note at a time it sounds in tune. "So a child with special needs, for example, walks up to the chimes and plays two notes at the same time and it sounds beautiful; it doesn't sound like they've made a mistake. And now they want to play more, and other kids hear. It's a social experience. You take that barrier away, when every note is a right note—that's exciting!"

Lisiecki agrees that musical play and exploration are fun and beneficial for people of all ages and abilities. "Music is a universal language and helps children connect with each other, learn and comprehend language and provides another creative outlet for outdoor play. Outdoor musical instruments are popular in parks and recreation areas, schools, churches and community outdoor spaces and as part of a play space or standalone events."

Adventure playgrounds that get kids moving and feature exciting climbing pieces and tall, twisting slides are another trend that Lisiecki mentioned. "We're competing with screens that provide constant stimulation, so designing a play environment that brings a sense of excitement and allows children to create their own play experience—one that is different every time—helps to bring them outside and into their own minds and bodies for the adventure instead of someone else's.

"Intergenerational engagement is a trend we've been taking note of and are really excited about," said Lisiecki, pointing out that bringing people of all ages and abilities together in the same space to engage in exercise and play is a great way to foster healthy habits and community relationships. She described how their obstacle courses, designed for ages 5 to 12 and 13-plus, offer a fun workout where parents and children, sports teams and community organizations can work out together at different levels in an engaging environment. "This helps build community pride and camaraderie from people of all ages and provides a space for healthy, non-screen fun. With obesity rates rising in all age groups, public exercise spaces can help combat this trend."

Callison agreed that the obstacle or challenge courses are very popular, with his company offering a Youth and Pro series, with an optional timing system available. Three surfacing options are offered with the courses, including engineered wood fiber (EWF), poured rubber or professional-grade synthetic turf. The pre-configured courses fit within a 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot area, but customers with smaller or larger areas can design their own course. "We give them the opportunity to create these modular courses and pick and choose any of the different categories of products and configure it," said Callison, adding that the courses are perfect for those kids who've aged out of traditional playgrounds. "It's a nice multi-generational product. I see that segment growing more and more."


Theming is still a popular choice for playgrounds, as it's a way to tell a story and create an imaginative play experience, according to Lisiecki. "A tower can be, to a child, a castle, a rocket ship, a mountaintop or a racecourse. They develop their own play experiences and it can be different every time. That's the beauty of child-directed play—it's their experience to define."

Callison can't imagine theming ever going away, since people love to personalize things and theming allows for endless possibilities. "You can do something very simple like add a custom entrance sign, or add a couple small elements here and there that give it a forest theme or an ocean theme. You can do big, massive climbers made of different materials that help tell the story and history of a space."

He described a couple of their projects that feature theming, including the Playground of Dreams in Kennewick, Wash. In a series of open houses, citizens told the city they wanted some local touches added to the park's rebuild. A cable-style bridge and lighthouse were included, mimicking landmarks found on the nearby Columbia River. And in a nod to the town's history and annual hydroplane races, hydroplane amenities were included.

Set within Whitehaven Lane Park in Memphis, Tenn., is David Carnes Park, honoring one of the first African-American landowners in Memphis, who was a blacksmith. "So we built a custom blacksmith shop right there in the middle of the park," said Callison, "with lots of play elements and things to do to pretend you're a blacksmith." There is also a picture and brief history of Carnes. "It's a great way for future generations to learn this history of the community without the history being lost, while making it playful too."

Many communities don't have an internal resource to determine how a playground space should be used, according to Callison. He described their build team which is made up of play space designers, architects and sensibility experts, who work with municipalities on design, contracts, building codes, etc. They hold community meetings to get citizens' input. "We're not just providing them with a playground structure, we're helping them determine how the space is going to be used for the next 10, 15, 20 years and beyond. We look at a lot of things that determine what they need right now and how to forecast what the need will be for future generations." This might include thinking about inclusion on a bigger scale than just ramps, current and future demographics, considering extending walking paths, looking at how public transit might get people to your space, etc.

Play, playground, recreation and outdoor fitness areas bring people together outdoors, and design plays a huge role in the usability of these spaces, according to Lisiecki, whose firm also has a design team. She mentioned some of the items they consider when helping communities meet their project objectives, including all applicable standards, including location, visibility, parking, allocated space, budget, playground capacity, inclusivity and accessibility, age range and play experience, whether that be adventure, theme, fitness or a combination.

Making playground spaces more inclusive is a major consideration, and more and more designers and manufacturers are looking beyond ADA guidelines. Callison explained that these days, communities are typically much more educated when it comes to building inclusive spaces, and it's become a major driver. "They'll come to us and say, 'We have a population with 5% that use mobility devices and we have 20% of our children under the age of 21 that have some type of cognitive disorder, so what kind of sensory play activities do you have?'"


While pointing out that no two kids are the same, Callison suggested ways to try to accommodate the needs of a child on the autism spectrum, like making sure the equipment is spaced further apart than normal, including activities that provide a sensory-rewarding type of mechanism like roller slides and textured climbers, and having cozy spaces that provide relief from too much sensory input.

He explained that it's helpful to have boundaries—not barriers—around the play area. "It doesn't have to be a fence, it could be plantings, art work, statues or land forming." Creating a sense of boundary around the play area diminishes the likelihood of running off, according to Callison. Users "feel safe and enclosed without feeling trapped."

Other considerations Callison mentioned include charging stations for mobility devices; restrooms that have changing tables for adults with mobility devices, or changing tables that lower or raise with a motor so a parent with a mobility device can change their child; climbers that are made of molded plastic and have built-in hand holds and grips that make it easy to maneuver or transfer to the climber; truly inclusive climbers that also have sensory panels and games to engage people of all abilities, whether on the ground or on the climber itself. "Even looking at ways to make nets or things that you wouldn't ordinarily think of as inclusive, inclusive. Really trying to push the boundaries of what it means to offer playground equipment that's including everyone."

A playground swing in which an adult and child can swing together and interact face to face has been a big hit, according to Callison, as it promotes intergenerational play. It's offered in different versions, including one for older children of all abilities, which features an adaptive swing seat.

Lisiecki described one of their swings that is "specially designed for children that use mobility devices with an angled seat back that provides extra support and comfort. These options mean everyone can swing together in the same space at a level that's comfortable and accessible for them."

Creating a play environment that is both inclusive and equitable for all is not only a trend but a necessity, according to Lisiecki, who said they focus on universal design, meaning that all children and all people of all ages and abilities are able to access the space and engage with it. "This means there is play variety so no matter what the child's interest, ability or attention level, there is something that meets them where they are and challenges them to grow."

Called "the nation's most innovative and inclusive playground", Magical Bridge opened in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2015. It features distinct play zones designed to accommodate everyone, seamless pathways and retreat spaces for those needing a break. There's wheelchair access to a two-story playhouse, treehouse and top of a slide mound. Fully accessible equipment includes bucket swings, spinning features, wide slides, a sway boat and a merry-go-round flush with the ground. Other features include a Kindness Corner, 24-string laser harp, original interactive artwork, tactile slides and surfaces, and plenty of shade.


The success of Magical Bridge led the co-founders—Olenka Villarreal and Jill Asher—to start the Magical Bridge Foundation, with the goal of opening additional playgrounds. They currently have several other projects under construction, with a Magical Bridge in Redwood City, Calif.—a $9 million project—recently completed. But like the flagship space, it's currently closed due to the coronavirus. "It's going to be one of the world's premier playgrounds," said Asher. "It's waiting for people to come and play and love it, but we cannot open those gates yet."

The Foundation also has a design team that seeks to bridge the gap between existing ADA mandates and fully-inclusive play spaces. They work to secure grants and funding for low-income communities, "trying to identify the funds and then partner with the city to design it and get the construction done," said Asher, adding that they get inquiries from entities across the country concerning getting their playground projects off the ground. "We're happy to give advice and share what we've done. I wish we could help everybody, but we're staying very laser-focused on the projects at hand and identifying new projects that can actually come to fruition."

When asked about different products, Asher shared that "The laser harp is well-loved, there are always people under it playing. You can play music together side by side—it's incredibly popular. Because you don't touch anything, it's going to be fantastic post-COVID."

She described the Dignity Landing, a new innovation at the bottom of a slide so that users can scoot over with dignity while their wheelchair is brought down. "That's going into all of our playgrounds," explained Asher. "Both able-bodied children and adults and those with visible and indivisible disabilities, young and very old come to play. We have absolutely everyone at every stage of life come to Magical Bridge."

According to Callison, trail play will likely grow in popularity due to the coronavirus. "By having play activities along a trail, now you re-engage children with the idea of walking a trail or exploring a space."

The "play pockets" are typically nature-themed, with play activities that look like different animals in their habitat, and educational signage and information to help children and families understand ecology and environmental conservation. "They take up more space, but you can create the sense of a trail even in a small space by having pathways around things and putting areas of play around a building, and helping children gain a sense of discovery and exploration. When we add play equipment to those trails, we do see an uptick in the amount of usage to those spaces," said Callison. RM