Mist, Spray & Splash
Trends in Splash Play, From Inclusion to Water Conservation
In 2001, I encountered a splash play area for the first time. It was one of those scorching hot summer days, and a friend and I had taken a lunchtime stroll for iced coffee and found a spot to sit in a park somewhere in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. In that park was a fairly rudimentary zero-depth splash pad, with a handful of features that misted and sprayed—all to the noisy delight of around a dozen kids. Since then, splash play has expanded vastly.
"Splash pads of today offer a lot more than the splash pads of 15 to 20 years ago," said Barb Lapierre, regional sales manager for a designer and manufacturer of splash pad products based in Pointe-Claire, Quebec. "They are sustainable, well thought out and planned amenities that offer inclusive play for all and provide the opportunity for social and park equity that communities are looking to bring to their citizens."
Splash parks and water playgrounds are "pretty much mainstream now in any place that has an existing aquatic amenity," said Wyeth Tracy, president of a splash play equipment manufacturer based in Whitchurch-Stouffville, Ontario. "Municipal parks and recreation centers are all including spray parks in their budgets because they are less expensive to maintain than a swimming pool. They are also safer, which pleases the insurance companies."
In addition to local parks and aquatic facilities, Tracy said, spray parks are increasingly found on cruise ships, and waterparks have been adding larger versions to their facilities as a way to accommodate preschoolers and younger children. "Spray parks tend to be more inclusive to all types of bodies because they provide physical structures that come in all sizes and shapes for all people," he said.
Indeed, as with playgrounds, inclusion continues to be a trend in splash play design. Other trends cited by splash play product designers and manufacturers include theming, interactivity, water conservation and more.
"Incorporating the town's local icon or history into the splash play area is a growing trend," said Chris Thomas, director of marketing for a designer and manufacturer of water play equipment based in San Marcos, Texas. "It helps to embrace the community culture and history in a way that is unique to the community. Whether the splash pad is entirely a custom theme that mimics the town's history, or just a centerpiece that pays homage to a local icon, this is a great way to educate patrons and bring about a sense of community pride."
Talking about trends, Jodi Holt, regional sales director for an Ashland, Ohio-based manufacturer of water play equipment, said that the more interactive a splash play area is, the better. Her company's newest addition is a Whack-a-Mole-like game where the losing player gets a spray. New approaches to water conservation are also a trend, Holt said.
Sylvia Bucklew, marketing coordinator for a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based designer and manufacturer of pool and water play equipment, said there's been a shift away from potable, flow-through systems to recirculating systems, which saves money. Surfacing has also seen changes, with more splash pads relying on surface choices other than brushed concrete. This adds "… an additional element of theming and a more attractive design," she said. "We also have seen many facilities adding a splash pad to an existing swimming pool deck to incorporate a space for inclusive water play."
Lapierre said that extending the hours when splash pads can be used and expanding the demographic they serve are major trends. "Splash pads have always been designed to be inclusive and fun for all ages and abilities," she said. "New splash pads include LED lighting, enhanced technologies like digital water curtains, interactive play and age-specific experiences. These new additions invite different users to take advantage of this open space that offers rich water experiences and enhances our communities."
All Are Welcome
There are simple ways to make your splash play area more inviting to everyone in your community, along with specific ways to ensure those with physical and developmental disabilities are welcome to the fun.
Holt said that local theming incorporated into the park is one way to make it more inviting and attractive to the community. In addition, she said, "adding inclusive/interactive elements such as LED buttons for sound, vibration and action" are all low-cost ways to deliver "huge results."
Lapierre said a multi-layered approach taken to splash pad design is the best way to ensure it will reach as broad an audience as possible. This includes "… designing play for all ages, developmental stages, and all abilities," she explained. "It's important to include a wide variety of different experiences, from contemplative to fully immersive. It's also important to consider the capacity of the splash pad; the goal is to ensure there is enough play value for all while still being a comfortable and safe environment."
Eric Zelman, regional sales director with an Ashland, Ohio-based manufacturer of water play equipment, said that splash pads should be designed with inclusive features, and should be segmented with age-appropriate features.
Bucklew further elaborated on this concept. "For instance," she said, "the south end of a splash pad could be designed with light-pressure ground sprays to encourage those with sensory limitations, such as toddlers and those with disabilities, to use the splash pad. The opposite end can be designed with high-pressure water play features that have interactive elements. Dumping buckets, multilevel water playsets and other large water play structures can be intimidating at first, but draw the attention of older children and young adults. By having different areas that appeal to different abilities, you can create a splash play area that allows your guests to explore at their level of comfortability."
Tracy agreed that the layout of a splash park should separate activities attractive to preschoolers from those for older children. "Water features must be designed to be tactile but safe," he said. "It is important to design features for all sizes and capabilities. Water play is not just for children, and larger features can be added for adults as well."
For older children, Thomas said multilevel play structures are attractive, but warned that they can take up quite a bit of space, and added, "These structures should include water activities that do not require patrons to participate on the structure. These activities can be overhanging dumping buckets, water effects emitting from the sides of the structure or interactive features that can be accessed from the ground, to make the play area more inclusive."
Inclusion is very important in water play design, Tracy said. "We strive to design features that will accommodate all children's capabilities."
Indeed, when presented properly and designed well, Zelman said, "… there should be no stand-out difference in the guest's mind between guests with special needs and able-bodied guests."
While many facilities these days aim to do more than simply comply with the rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), ensuring you are in compliance is a crucial first step. "ADA access to the splash pad, proper spacing between features, age-appropriate play zones and ample seating for parents and caregivers are vitally important to the success and usability of a splash pad," Thomas said. "Incorporating a range of features from ground sprays to above-grade interactive features and dumping buckets produces a wide range of activities to accommodate all ages and abilities."
Most splash play designers agree that splashpads are inherently inclusive. They are "an excellent way to add an element of inclusive water play to your facility," Bucklew said. "Splash pads all but eliminate the risk of drowning due to the lack of standing water, making it a safer space for those with disabilities. On top of this, most water play features that you see on a splash pad do not require climbing or crawling, allowing those in wheelchairs to engage in these water play experiences."
"Splash pads encourage users to play at their own pace, to use their imagination," Lapierre added. "Users can choose to be social or play alone; there are no rules on a splash pad. Anything goes. You can walk, run, wheel, jump or sit, be loud or be quiet. Splash pads are zoned for comfort levels, so if you're tired of getting wet, you can also find an area to just hang out and enjoy playing with the water."
Holt pointed out that when it comes to inclusion, her company considers two key factors in all of its designs: designing features that provide both cognitive and sensory interactive experiences for children of all ages and abilities; and configuring layouts in a way that encourages typically developing children to play with those who have different needs and abilities. Holt highlighted the value of the wide variety of sensory experiences provided by splash pads, from tactile, visual and auditory through proprioceptive (sense of movement and spatial orientation) and vestibular (sense of balance).
Getting started means finding the right location for your splash play area. There are many factors that go into this decision, from the conditions of the site and amenities available to its visibility to passersby and comfort for patrons.
"Site conditions are very important," Thomas said. "Ensuring that the spray park has access to city water, electricity and sewer/wastewater utilities is preferred. Locating the pad away from trees and foliage reduces maintenance and makes it easier to include shade structures without obstructions.
"Restroom facilities are a big plus when it comes to accommodating your patrons," he added. "Providing parking will also draw more patrons who may live beyond a reasonable walking distance." But if there is parking or a road nearby, he said, be sure to include fencing. Even better, provide seat walls, which can "serve not only as a place to sit but also a barrier to slow younger children down from leaving the play area and entering a street or parking lot."
Tracy agreed that restrooms nearby are an important consideration, and added that splash pads and spray parks should not be located near sand play. "The site should include a wide apron around the pad to keep mud from forming in grassy areas from any overspray," he added.
Bucklew said it's also important to consider the bather-load potential of your site. "A splash pad in a public park could see attendance of up to 500 people a day," she said. "While you may not see this on a Monday afternoon in the middle of the school year, it's best to overestimate the amount of people that will use the splash pad on weekends and holidays to keep maintenance costs down and ensure your splash pad runs consistently.
"Exceeding the maximum bather load will lead to plumbing issues that could result in splash pad closure for an extended period of time."
What About Drought?
With many state and local governments looking for ways to conserve water, it's important to understand how to find a splash play solution that will maximize fun during the hottest summer days while minimizing water usage.
"Water features come in all sizes and water flows, so if low water usage is required, features with low water flow should be used," Tracy said. "Also, a controller manifold can be installed, which will sequence through various features such that not all features are on at once. A recirculation system is also a recommendation to keep water usage to a minimum."
Bucklew also suggested recirculating systems to address the environmental concerns associated with potable flow-through systems. "By using a recirculating UV system with a water collector tank as the water source, the facility saves water and keeps costs down. Additionally, having an activator button on the splash pad will allow for the water to run only while the splash pad is in use and will turn off automatically."
Holt said that while recirculation systems are ideal, they can also be pricey. "If drain-away is the only option," she said, consider using low-flow nozzles or misting nozzles, collecting gray water for irrigation, and programming the controller for "max GPM choreography, meaning only a certain number of features are on at one time."
Thomas also suggested sequencing spray features, and said that in addition to conserving water, this method "encourages patrons to move throughout the splash play area and experience different water activities."
Holt also suggested taking activators one step further, by "zoning the park with several activators on the actual features so only certain parts of the park are running."
Like most designers of parks and recreation amenities, splash pad manufacturers have taken the need for conservation into consideration, and continue to develop systems and technologies that meet this growing demand.
"Splash pads of today are highly sustainable and consider each community's unique situation when it comes to water conservation," Lapierre said. There are systems that minimize water usage through product selection, sequencing and control systems, as well as "state-of-the-art recirculation systems that include remote monitoring, rain sensors, wind sensors," she added. These systems ensure that the water is monitored for safety, as well as optimal usage, and can reduce maintenance and minimize water usage "by reacting to the elements and sending remote notifications through new technologies."
Update & Expand
Already have a splash play area in your community? It's worth considering whether your existing offering meets the demands of your community, Lapierre said.
Questions to ask, she added, include, "Is it big enough? Do they need to add an addition? Possibly an area for a forgotten demographic? Is it engaging enough?
"Splash pads have come a long way from 15 to 20 years ago, play features are much more engaging and offer more interaction," she said. "The popularity of a splash pad has everything to do with a sustainable design for play.
"Is the splash pad designed for water optimization? New water management equipment might offer significant savings of water, money and time," Lapierre continued.
Finally, consider replacing features to add new and interactive play value, she said. "Many splash pads that were designed 15 years ago include the ability to simply replace features without any construction work or change to the water management system."
Thomas added that if you're considering swapping out older features for new ones, "… it is important to swap out similar age-appropriate play features with similar flow requirements. For example, we would not recommend adding dumping buckets in a toddler area; however, we would recommend a low-level feature with a different effect but similar flow that is appropriate for a toddler. The same applies for areas aimed at older age groups, where you can add new interactive features that require teamwork or features that invoke thrill, such as large dumping buckets."
Chip Stallo, lead aquatic designer for a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based designer and manufacturer of pool and water play equipment, had more suggestions. "A few ideas for revamping existing splash pads that will revitalize interest in the feature but not incur the large cost of completely redesigning and constructing are: changing the play area surface to a rubberized safety surface with new colors and aesthetic elements; or redesigning the pad with new features that go through the existing plumbing penetrations from the original design, giving the feature a completely new look without changing the existing layout or support footings." RM