Feature Article - September 2003
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Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

Playground design trends mix excitement with accessibility and safety

By Kelli Anderson

It's the million-dollar question: What makes a playground fun?

Research groups study it, manufactures try to design it, communities pay big bucks for it and kids—well, kids just know when they get there.

Children of all abilities can enjoy the "I Can Fly" playground at William S. Baer School in Baltimore

In the wake of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) guidelines in 1981 to make playgrounds safer, coupled with the need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines in 1991, many playgrounds across the country were systematically stripped bare of anything high or that moved. Playgrounds often lost their fun-factor. And the needs of children with disabilities, although given a spotlight thanks to the ADA, have still been largely misunderstood and unaddressed. Until now, that is.

So what does make a playground fun? Various groups in the industry touch that proverbial elephant like the blind men in the fable, sometimes coming to different conclusions that if taken together, still make a pretty good composite picture. What they all agree on, however, is that making playgrounds not only accessible but universally accessible so that children of all abilities can play and interact together throughout the structures is the single-most sweeping trend in the industry.

It's an exciting time for those who have waited so long on the sidelines, separated from their peers and unable to enjoy the most fundamental element of childhood—play with other children.

Excitement in playground design through more activity-based play events is also capturing the industry's attention. The thrill factor is back. Making playgrounds a joy for all children is a concept whose time has come.

Check it Out

According to 33-year industry veteran and innovator, Steve King, co-founder and chairman of a playground manufacturer, the biggest mistakes made by communities or groups installing a playground are poor site analysis and needs assessment.

Here's a rough guide to avoid some of those common pitfalls:

  1. Get input and feedback from kids, caregivers and the city to find out what people truly want and don't want in a playground.
  2. Accurately estimate the number of children using the playground and make sure playground events for the age groups are age-appropriate and separated by groupings in ranges 0 to 2, 2 to 5, 5 to 12.
  3. Made in the shade? Take note of the sun's direction and orient seating, play structures and shade features to maximize comfort.
  4. Noah's ark? Get rid of that storm water. Check out soil and slope for adequate drainage.
  5. Line of vision? Make sure caregivers can see all play areas from their supervising locations and that police can see the playground when driving by.
  6. Check that curb cuts, surfacing and equipment choices maximize the accessibility and usability for children and their caregivers with disabilities. Go above and beyond the letter of the ADA—make it fun for everyone.
  7. Is there adequate parking, accessibility for emergency vehicles and accessible pathways from parking areas to the playground?
  8. Many manufacturers and special-interest groups offer design help—take advantage of their experience.
  9. Check with local as well as state and federal codes and regulations to make sure you are fully compliant.
  10. Kids first—remember, the playground is for the kids—make it a fun place to be, with interesting things and where all kids can have access and be in the middle of play.