Want to Play?
The Latest Playground Trends Get Everyone Moving
A leading recreational equipment company recently shared its top five playground industry trends for 2021. Two of the five trends are responses to needs and mandates that have grown from the COVID-19 pandemic—outdoor learning and outdoor fitness. The other three are continuations of the world before the virus changed daily life—inclusivity, increased use of rope structures, and what the company calls "human powered play."
"There is a growing interest in providing electronic, interactive play without the need for replaceable batteries," said the press release announcing the five trends. "More than 15 billion expired batteries end up in landfills around the world each year. The answer to this environmental issue is human-powered electronics."
To power sensory-rich experiences like lights and music, storytelling or social games, playground users turn a handle, repeatedly press a foot pedal or rotate a wheel. The results are environmentally sustainable and lower maintenance costs.
The playground industry's focus on sustainability—from manufacturing to materials to experiences like human powered play—is similar to the concurrent attention in the 21st century to enabling people of all ages and abilities to use playgrounds. This push for inclusion goes far beyond the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.
"Making sure the playground is accessible is now table stakes," said Kent Callison, director of marketing for a playground equipment firm. "Forty years ago it just didn't happen unless it was a very specialized environment. Now it's just what you do.
"What we're going to see more of is that people are truly interested in true inclusion. Not just being sure everyone is in the same space but making sure they're all able to interact with one another and the environment in a way that benefits everyone altogether at the same time."
Callison said the inclusion movement has progressed from education to expectation; clients now ask for as much inclusion as possible. His company tries to stay on the cutting edge on inclusive design through its research partnership with the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University.
"Inclusion will continue to be a trend, where companies and the industry as a whole will
continue to innovate to make sure that we're not just keeping up with the need but we're anticipating what the next need will be," said Callison.
One of Callison's company's claims to inclusive fame is a swing with an adjustable seat for the child that faces a bench seat for a parent or caregiver, allowing for a face-to-face experience that deepens emotional bonds during fun.
Callison said the improvement that turned the initial swing into the universal model was the adjustable seat custom-made for a Make A Wish participant. The custom-made upgrade grew from discussions with the child's parents and worked so well it has become one of the company's best-selling products.
"I'm constantly amazed by the innovation that comes just from listening to people who are going to use the products," said Callison. "Once we had this custom piece, we found out from other families they wanted the same kind of experience."
In addition to such swings, playgrounds have areas specifically for people with sensory challenges. One company's blog includes a 2015 post listing 10 features that welcome and raise the experience of people with autism:
- A walking path offers a chance to scout the playground, helping ease the child into what can be an intimidating environment.
- Nature areas provide sensory stimulation like sand and the soothing sound of running water.
- Loose building materials made from wood, plastic and styrofoam allow children to quietly focus on creativity.
- Opportunities for both passive—like being pushed on swings—and independent movement.
- Hiding spaces for when and if the child feels overwhelmed.
- Pressure sensory elements like slides that use rollers for children who are soothed by physical pressure.
- Play structures that encourage interaction with others since many playground sensory activities are focused on the individual.
- Natural beiges and wood colors are less likely than bright colors to alarm a child with autism.
- A nearby greenspace for activity when/if the structure environment becomes too much.
- A nearby dog park can provide the comfort that some children get from interaction with animals.
Not to be overlooked under the umbrella of inclusivity is a welcoming and usable play area for all ages. Sarah Lisiecki, a marketing, communications and education specialist for a playground equipment company, said intergenerational areas are trending.
"Bringing people of all ages and abilities together in the same space to engage in exercise, musical exploration and play is a great way to foster healthy habits and community relationships," said Lisiecki.
Obstacle courses are an example of two trends: intergenerational play and outdoor fitness. A more challenging course invites parents to participate for competition or just enjoyment. Lisiecki said such courses offer more than a different kind of activity.
"A fun workout where parents and children or grandchildren, sports teams and community organizations can work out together at different levels and in a fun, engaging environment," she said. "This helps build community pride and camaraderie from people of all ages. With obesity rates rising in all age groups, public exercise spaces can help combat this trend."
Outdoor activity, and specifically fitness activity, has surged into the industry spotlight in the past year because of the pandemic's shutdown of health clubs. The obstacle course trend began before the pandemic and satisfies the need for the relative safety of outdoor gathering, extends family time from inside to outside, and provides exercise that's different than traditional playground movements.
"We are 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," Lisiecki said.
"Futuristically, we can see an even greater need for outdoor spaces as they provide mental and physical health benefits for communities."
Both Callison and Avery Croteau, sales director for a rope-based playground equipment company, agree that roping and netting are increasingly popular aspects of new playgrounds. Croteau said rope structures are uniquely positioned to respond to the pandemic's assault on indoor physical activity and fitness.
"Parents will seek types of play experiences where children aren't necessarily confined to a space but can still interact at a distance, so play spaces with fewer visual barriers and more transparency will become popular," said Croteau. "Another change I think we'll see as a response to COVID-19 is parents wanting their kids to be more physically active at the playground.
"Staying physically active is an important part of boosting the immune system, fighting obesity and many of the other conditions that come from a lack of exercise. With the amount of time kids are spending indoors because of the lockdowns, once things open up, I think parents will be encouraging their kids to get active. Rope play offers that extra physical challenge that these parents are looking for and kids naturally seek out. There's a clear difference in the physical exertion required to climb our rope structures versus traditional play equipment. I think we will see more emphasis put on providing these types of activities on the playground."
Callison said nets and roping offer flexibility of design that lends itself to customization. Climbing walls made of rope netting, enclosed rope bridges, rope ladders instead of traditional steps—all and more are possible with ropes and netting, said Croteau.
Ropes and netting can also play into another trend, using an area's natural topography rather than moving it to make way for the playground.
"The way (clients) want to use them now and for the past few years, they want to get really creative with them, they want to create something that's custom," said Callison. "By taking some time to consult, we can create something they've never seen. Massive net structures, very tall or very wide, different ways to climb on or through, up and under. Custom net design is a big deal right now."
Customization of playgrounds could be considered a trend as well, since every company can build to suit, including design, materials, size, inclusive features, colors and themes.
"I feel that clients want a space that is completely unique, unlike anything that can be found in other play spaces," said Croteau. "We're constantly being asked 'to show us something different.'"
One company designed just such a playground that incorporated many of today's trends with its work on the Lowcountry Celebration Park in Hilton Head Island, S.C.. According to the company's creative director, Scott Roschi, the partners on this project wanted to create a memorable, iconic, destination playground that families would gravitate to and visit repeatedly, with authentic details and interpretive elements that would educate and entertain both children and their caregivers.
The result is a 1,400-square-foot ship-themed playground structure that mimics The Adventure, the ship of Captain William Hilton for whom Hilton Head is named. Playground climbers inside and out of the ship deliver challenge and fun for kids ages 5 to 12. In addition, there are tunnels, slides, activity panels, a dinghy-themed accessible glider and misting cannons.
"Customers are looking for unique designs—playgrounds that have their own personalities—to include in each park," said Roschi. "We are being asked to create something different for each play space so no two parks are exactly the same. For us, that opens up opportunities to collaborate with the community and deliver customized play elements that help create community destinations."
Ideally, customization involves collaboration with clients and their communities to incorporate as many relevant trends as possible in their playgrounds. Manufacturers and service providers say they need basic information from prospective clients to deliver the best results, but more than the basics can result in maximized outcomes.
"Play, playground, recreation and outdoor fitness areas bring people together outdoors and design plays a huge role in the usability of these spaces," Lisiecki said. "Creating and designing play environments that help communities meet their project objectives and all applicable standards is an area where we can help."
Lisiecki said her company always asks potential clients:
- Age range: What ages of children or adults will be using this space?
- Inclusivity: Creating a space that is both accessible and equitable means everyone will be able to find the best of themselves through play.
- Capacity: How many people do we need to play at once?
- Budget: How much can we spend?
- Space: How much room do we have to create this space and how can we best use it to meet our objectives?
- Play Experience: Adventure, theme, fitness, combination of all? What type of play experiences do we want users to have?
- Location: Is our location easy to access? How can we make sure everyone can easily be part of the environment? Is this location adjacent to another play or recreation space?
- Parking: Where will people park? How many people will park here at the same time?
- Visibility: How will people know about this park? Can they see it from the street? A neighborhood? Signs?
"The number one thing that playground designers look for is access to information," said Croteau. "We're always looking for inspiration and ideas from and about the communities for which the play space is being designed.
"Discovering that there are opportunities to personalize the design—using small customizations like signage, colors or replication of local icons—to better connect the playground to the community is a great way to bring real personality to the location."
Michael Andrews is principal at Pete Mirich Elementary School in LaSalle, Colo., a rural town that needed a playground refresh. The school's playground equipment ranged from 25 to 40 years old and was in ill repair—the district nurse reported injuries from usage.
The school is also the home of the school district's special needs center, so inclusivity was a must.
"Children with mobility issues could not access the playground at all," said Andrews. "Children with sensory issues had nothing designed for them, and caregivers could not participate or engage with children during play. Older children and adults were not attracted to the old equipment as it was designed for elementary-aged children only."
Before the district representatives could share important needs with an equipment company, the community had to decide what it needed in order to best apply for the necessary grants. A planning committee consisted of parents, school staff and community members. The committee researched the playgrounds of other Colorado towns, brainstormed and researched playground equipment that met the guidelines of the grant and incorporated ideas from the parent teacher organization and school staff.
Three companies submitted bids for the project, said Andrews, but only one seemed to actually listen to the district's needs and capabilities. It also fulfilled the district's wish to use a locally owned company. Andrews said the results have matched the goals.
"For me the most important thing was to provide a place for our large population of students with special needs," he said. "Students with mobility issues are able to access the playground equipment for the first time in our school's history. Children with autism and sensory issues have areas specifically designed for them.
"With the layout and size of our new equipment, students, classes and cohorts are able to socially distance while playing, and caregivers, staff, parents and older students throughout the community are able to participate and engage in activities on the new equipment."
Andrews has advice for any organization that is considering a playground project: Find someone in the community who has grant-writing experience and a playground equipment company that listens, and include as many stakeholder and user groups as possible in the planning.
"There were items that we had never thought of that were shared by different groups in our various meetings," said Andrews. "Including the various groups really helped create excitement and support for the project."
When all is said and done behind the scenes, what the community sees and uses is what's most important. Those results can be the product of trend monitoring and usage if both sides work together for a broad-ranging win-win-win for the client, the community and the company, said Callison.
"The park is the great equalizer," he said. "An open space free to everybody. When you create a space that encourages people to gather regardless of age or ability, you're taking a big step forward in creating a more equitable society. It's a responsibility we all take seriously, making a space where everyone is equal and welcome. Everyone in this field wants that." RM