Attract Visitors & Community Members With Destination Playgrounds
If you have a park or schoolyard near your residence with a playground that your kids can walk or bike to and blow off some steam or get their swinging fix, you're probably grateful to have that spot nearby. But sometimes the kids may crave a play experience with a little more bang-a place that's worth driving to or hopping on a bus, a space that might offer a variety of play amenities plus other activities: a destination playground.
What sets a destination playground apart from your local neighborhood play space? "Destination spaces are often larger and encompass a variety of play elements for a variety of age groups," offered Sarah Lisiecki, marketing communications and education specialist with a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based manufacturer of playground equipment. "They can have trails, water activities, zoos, sports fields, outdoor fitness equipment and more. Even smaller spaces can be destinations for families and communities. A focus on inclusivity, play variety, re-play value (kids wanting to come back and play again and again) and age-appropriate play makes any play space a destination."
Scott Roschi, creative director for a Delano, Minn.-based playground manufacturer, mentioned scale and variety as setting destination spaces apart. "You might find something for ages 6 to 23 months, as well as play spaces for toddlers and preschoolers and kids aged 5 to 12", which he said is unlikely in a neighborhood playground with limited space. "There will often be lots of playground swings and maybe even outdoor fitness equipment for teens and adults. When the entire family can all do something regardless of age, it makes these spaces a half-day or full day visit.
"It's not just important to have something for everyone," continued Roschi, "it's about offering more; more variety for each age group, for everyone. Because play structures can be larger at destination playgrounds, there can be more levels of challenge and greater exploration. There also tends to be more space for larger independent elements like multi-user spinners, large net climbing structures and, of course, everyone's favorite-more swings and a greater variety of swing experiences."
"Play environments that are designed as destination places definitely have an increased 'wow' factor," agreed Lisiecki. She mentioned rope systems as one play feature that brings the fun as well as provides serious re-play value. She described how these systems make the climbing experience unique every time with reactive motion-a child climbing on one side moves the ropes so another child climbing feels that movement, changing their overall experience. "Rope climbers are awe-inspiring, bring challenge and imagination to the play space and provide a fresh and exciting play experience."
Avery Croteau, director of sales for a playground equipment manufacturer headquartered in Greenville, S.C., said their rope and net systems are sometimes referred to as "play sculptures." In fact, the company's website states that "Playgrounds and art can be excellently combined in public spaces."
"Destination spaces tend to differentiate themselves by the unique look," said Croteau. "We've seen even more emphasis and creativity over the past few years with regards to design aesthetics in these destination playgrounds. Our material capabilities give us an advantage in this area because we're using 'out of the box' solutions: bamboo, perforated aluminum panels, printed shade fabric." Pipes, posts and balls used in the play structures come in 31 standard colors, and customers can choose from 13 rope colors, which can be combined. "We've always had a focus on pushing the limits to accomplish a unique visual appeal."
Destination parks do tend to be more customized, according to Roschi. "To deliver a unique experience that communities are looking for, custom solutions are central to most of the design direction for these sites. The custom elements become the iconic centerpiece, but the best designs then augment the remaining space with the great variety of other standard play elements to deliver loads of play variety."
When it comes to custom designs, Croteau said modularity allows for one-of-a-kind configurations, making it easier to work within the constraints of a site regardless of the topography, small footprint, etc. Addressing custom-made projects, their website reads that "It's often the case that the landscape for which the structure is designed ensures the design cannot be replicated elsewhere." Added Croteau, "When presented with truly custom requests, we can accomplish design intent because of this modular nature in combination with our vast, high-quality material capabilities."
Croteau said that not only are destination playgrounds typically of a larger scale, oftentimes they're designed for a specific purpose-inclusivity in particular-which all of our contributors strongly agreed with. "Greater inclusion is absolutely a goal of large destination playgrounds," said Roschi. "With the greater space there's more ability to design experiences for children of all abilities to play side-by-side. Designing graduated challenge in play spaces really opens play for the entire family." He added that having features like their inclusive swings-where an individual using a wheelchair can swing with friends, siblings and caregivers-is what sets destination playgrounds apart.
Field of Dreams-a project of Lisiecki's firm-is one of the largest, most inclusive play destinations in Louisiana. Choosing the design and equipment was a community effort, including everyone from special educators to people with differing abilities and their families, sharing their experiences to help shape the environment. Children of all abilities can have the same experiences in their own unique way, and a fully ramped structure and unitary surfacing help level the playing field. There is swinging, sliding, climbing and sensory play to help kids develop and gain skills that transcend the playground.
"Field of Dreams park is a perfect example of how
inclusive play spaces can transform a community and create a destination," said Lisiecki. "This community is so passionate about play for everyone and providing an equitable play experience that they've created a destination park because of it!"
She explained how they've gone beyond ADA requirements and applied universal design principles to meet every child's interest, ability or attention level. For instance, besides standard swings, there's a swing where a caregiver/child or child/child can swing together-great for younger or inexperienced users. And another swing 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 place at a level that's comfortable and accessible for them."
When designing these larger spaces, Lisiecki said it's key to get input from all users to ensure everyone's needs are understood and create spaces that draw people in. "Design contests, voting on play designs and choosing colors are all ways to get a larger and broader audience excited about the coming play environment."
French Regional Park sits on the shore of Medicine Lake in Plymouth, Minn. There's a swimming beach, fishing pier and lighted trails to explore, plus a unique play area that's been a destination for generations. When the nearly 30-year-old play area needed to be replaced, the community was deeply concerned, though the goal was to maintain the integrity of the original wood and cargo net design. "The existing play area was beloved by many community members," said Jill Caffee, park operations supervisor at Three Rivers Park District. "So, while we wanted to build something fresh and new, we knew that community input and public engagement was imperative to the project's success."
A commitment to transparent communication and public engagement was established, according to Caffee, and through surveys, social media efforts, an FAQ board and regular communication, the public's feedback was heard. Incorporating playground nets was important, as was height, towers, slides and water misters. The project committee also reached out to the real experts-a local elementary school, the Kid Task Force-engaging 22 third through fifth graders over two years. Ultimately, they were integral in choosing the color scheme, some slides and swings and the safety surfacing.
Another critical design aspect was accessibility. "The team considered play components and accessibility for both physical and sensory needs," said Caffee. "We wanted kids of varying abilities to be embedded in the play area and not on the sidelines." The committee engaged people who use mobility devices for guidance, and now the second level of the playground provides access throughout the structure to individuals using wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Sensory features were added including soft chimes, a sand and water feature and interactive panels along the second level decking.
The new park has been a huge hit. A 28-foot tower greets park-goers, and a mix of real wood and recycled wood-grain lumber-plus a generous supply of belting and nets-echoes the park's history. "French Regional is a great example of how important community input is in developing destination spaces," said Roschi. "We heard loud and clear from the taskforce the importance of keeping the cargo nets. There were also voices from the community to make the new space more inclusive than the former space, so the design team worked hard to make the entire space not just more accessible, but truly inclusive. Community input is so important because these sites are being designed to serve the community for decades, so it's imperative that the voice of the community helps shape the final product."
Many times, destination playgrounds are situated in areas where there are already other features to draw visitors. In Oshkosh, Wis., Menominee Park sits on the shores of Lake Winnebago. The popular playground-a project of Lisiecki's company-is surrounded by water sports, walking trails, sports facilities and a zoo. "It's a perfect example of a destination with something for everyone," said Lisiecki. "Oshkosh is an event city and attracts people from around the world for music, aviation and water recreation, so it's a natural fit to have this play environment within a larger destination park. This is a practice that ensures there is added value to greenspaces, and it brings local people outside and attracts visitors to an area they may not have otherwise discovered."
And what about theming: still a popular design consideration? "We do find a lot of requests for theming within the play spaces, especially if it's a particularly historical site within the community," said Croteau. Watkins Regional Park in Upper Marlboro, Md., is an 800-acre park attracting more than 1 million visitors a year. And one big draw is the themed playground: Due to the woodland setting and 80-foot tall trees, it was deemed perfect for a Wizard of Oz theme. There's Auntie Em and Uncle Henry's Kansas farm, Dorothy's house, Toto's doghouse, Munchkin Land, Emerald City and the hot air balloon. Dorothy's ruby slippers were adapted to be playground slides. The poured-in-place safety surfacing mimics the yellow brick road. The playground has become the destination spot within the park, pulling visitors from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Themed play is across the board, according to Roschi, whose company worked on Watkins Park. "When it comes to playground design, small and large playground designers are using themes to celebrate a community. However, we've seen clients with a desire to take their destination playground to an almost theme park-like attraction. The high level of theming is one element to attract visitors from all around to the playground."
Fitness components can be good ways to engage older kids and adults at destination spaces. "Outdoor fitness is an equitable way to bring fitness to communities and allows people to exercise together," said Lisiecki. She described how their fitness course "brings fun and challenge to the play space and can be easily integrated into a play environment for children aged 5 to 12 and everyone 13+."
The course features a series of challenging obstacles that an individual or team can tackle, with beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. And their fitness circuit-designed for older kids and adults and featuring body weight exercises and cardio workout-can be arranged in a traditional circuit format, placed along a trail or a combination of both.
Since the goal of destination spaces is to draw visitors from farther away and keep them onsite longer, it's important to consider support areas. "Plenty of accessible parking and accessible restroom facilities are must-haves," said Roschi. "Another consideration is that the destination be on bus or alternative transportation routes-especially in larger communities-to include more families that may not use cars for transportation."
Roschi also discussed two projects they worked on that included ice ribbons, "so the destination playground is also a 365-day a year destination even in snowy climates. Splash play is another aspect we're seeing in these destination parks. Spray play areas next to playgrounds have been another must-have, especially in warmer-weather areas."
Site amenities are also important considerations, including seating and tables, shade elements, litter receptacles, grills and bike racks. "Destination spaces are definitely places where having extra amenities is a huge bonus for comfort during a potentially longer length of stay," said Lisiecki. She described her company's furnishing line as shifting the paradigm of playground seating from the perimeter into the play space. "It offers comfortable seating, creative design and serves as a play event for climbing, balancing and imaginative play."
Aside from providing recreation and exercise opportunities to visitors, municipalities and parks departments may have other motivations for building destination spaces. "One of the drivers is surely attracting new people to the community to experience other amenities the city offers-restaurants, shopping as well as other entertainment," said Roschi. "Additionally, it means tax revenue. Cities that invest in destination play areas are benefiting from bringing new families to the communities. Even more, these amenities are being used to attract new businesses."
"Communities are always in competition to keep their current residents happy and attract future residents," added Croteau. "In today's remote work world, where proximity to your office is not as important, families are deciding where they want to call home based on several factors." One of them, he explained, is community amenities, and when you have kids, playgrounds are a consideration. And while everyone would like to live within walking distance of a destination space, "if you don't live close, people don't seem to mind traveling to the nearest one, which obviously drives new business."
"Bringing people into the community while serving the needs of the local residents is a goal we've heard many customers mention when designing a destination space," said Lisiecki. "The ROI on outdoor spaces is huge!"
Citing an Aspen Institute study, she said this can mean everything from lower overall obesity rates to higher property values. "The communities with increased scores spend $20 or more per resident on parks and recreation areas and see the benefit of higher property values. They also attract tourists, businesses, conventions and other events to the area while giving their residents an increased quality of life and making their communities better places to live and work."
More people seem to be seeking time outdoors, which is beneficial for both physical and mental health, according to Lisiecki, who said the trend is leading to more spaces that are exciting, robust and can accommodate a wide variety of users. "We've noticed a return to outdoor places as communities sought places to move, to roam, adventure, exercise, play and be together. And time has shown that when we're all outside, we need more parks, playgrounds and recreation areas to accommodate everyone and allow people of all ages and abilities to experience the benefits of outdoor play."
Roschi believes that destination playgrounds are becoming more popular based on the success of others in the country. "Parks departments and mayors are sharing the positive experiences with their peers, and it's sparking more investments in destination playgrounds. We're excited to see what's next as each playground we've had the opportunity to collaborate on has led to something new and amazing, and we're all about it!" RM