Guest Column - February 2004
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Play Value: the True Measure of a Playground’s Success

By Curt Shaneour

You've decided to build a new playground. Or perhaps it's going to be "just a playground update," adding to existing equipment and bringing your play area up to CPSC and ASTM codes. In either case, you have a very big challenge ahead. Not only are there literally hundreds of choices in playground designs and color combinations, there's a wide variety of prices for what seems, at first, similar equipment.

If yours is a municipality, you have a budget and know how much you can spend. However, you may need to take a proposal to city commissioners or council members for final approval. If yours is a school or your playground plans will include fund-raising, you've probably already formed several committees to help determine what equipment is desired and how the money might be raised. You may even have input from children and comments from parents. It's your job to sort out the "wish list" and turn playground dreams into reality.

After determining the ground space you have set aside for your playground, the ages and anticipated number of children to be served, you are ready to start thinking about equipment.

Where do you begin? Who makes the best equipment? What colors do you want? Bright orange and yellow? Trendy purples and shades of green? Dark colors that won't show dirt? Or architectural colors that blend into the surroundings.

Traditional slides, swings and climbers are always important in any playground. But with today's growing concern for obesity, you'll want to put an emphasis on fitness as well as fun. With a number of budget cutbacks this year, you'll also want to consider equipment designs that not only create fun and fitness activities but offer the highest value for every dollar spent.

Today's savvy buyers are measuring the number of different play activities on each piece of equipment and determining if there is sufficient "play value" before finalizing their purchase. Are there different climbing activities and places to slide, crawl or face other imaginative challenges? Is the structure ADA accessible?

Are there lots of colorful plastic shapes that increase cost but offer little in the way of play value?

Another dollar-conscious concern is the lasting value of the structure. In the past, many large community-built wood play centers were constructed. They were fun, because they had themes, like pirate ships or castles. The whole community got together to solicit wood and other materials and supplied its own labor to build. It was truly a labor of love—and a complete community commitment. However, many of these play structures have been removed because of safety and maintenance issues. One such example is St. Joseph Catholic School in Battle Creek, Mich. According to Principal Patricia Riley: "Our 9-year-old wood playground had become a major maintenance problem and was actually closed for safety reasons."

As it sometimes happens, when the parents who built the playground move on because their children no longer attend that particular school, maintenance might fall into the hands of people who were not involved and do not have the same interest as the original builders. Without constant care, wood playgrounds may not have a very long life. Consequently, after only nine years, the wood in the St. Joseph playground had deteriorated, and the timbers became infested with bees. Children picked up splinters, and the dry wood presented fire and vandalism concerns. One slide was also set in a dangerously high tower, creating many safety worries.

For the new playground, designers allowed for more creative play and worked with teachers to incorporate all their thoughts and concerns.

The new St. Joseph playground is also a community-built play area. Only this time, materials designed to withstand the elements, without the burden of constant and costly maintenance, were used. Recycled-plastic posts with a steel core for added strength were incorporated into the large structures, and because color is an integral part of the material, they will never need repainting.

A good measure of play value is also incorporated into each piece of equipment. The large central play structure features a number of climbing and sliding activities plus an imaginative track ride and multi-level bridges, plus transition platforms for children with physical disabilities. Because St. Joseph also has a preschool, a separate and distinct play area within the new playground was needed. Several small spring elements along with a train-themed play center were included. This imaginative theme piece is designed for younger children and features a cow-catcher climber, slides, a crawl tube under the smokestack, windows for a clear view of the track ahead, an engineer's panel with wheel and private spaces for imaginative play.

At a time when many schools are moving to curtail or even eliminate play periods in favor of improving test-score performance, children do not get enough exercise. Likewise, the dwindling interest in physical activities in our schools, combined with the growing obesity of young children, should be reason enough for all playground designers and manufacturers to be concerned and to take up the challenge of developing structures that not only provide fun but maximum play value as well.

Activity-filled playgrounds encourage youngsters to exercise, not only the body but also the creative mind. Play is an important part of growing up, of learning to share, of exercising creative thought and developing a lifelong habit of physical activity. It gets our children off the couch, away from the TV and computer, and out into the fresh air.

Play structures have to be ready to take on the burst of energy a young child brings. Structures have to be tough enough to withstand daily wear and tear, with creative elements to capture a child's attention. Plus—and this is the most important feature of all—there must be lots and lots to do, with challenges designed to hold attention, or a youngster will simply move on to something else.

Play value. Do you really get what you pay for? Well no, not always. If your concern is color and not how many activities a child can enjoy, or cute graphic attachments and not play challenges, you aren't getting the most for your money. When you get ready to design your playground and before you worry about the color combinations, measure the play value in each piece you've selected. Add the number of climbers, slides and imaginative spaces offered. Divide that by the total cost. Then check the warranties offered. How long do you expect your investment to last? How many children will be accommodated? What creative challenges will they face? Are there enough challenges to keep them busy, active and coming back for more?

With these questions answered, you can rest assured you will definitely get what you pay for—the most play value, in a playground that mixes fun and imaginative adventure with much needed physical activity.

Curt Shaneour is president of Recreation Creations, Inc. He can be reached at