Feature Article - September 2004
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Go Play

Making playgrounds appealing, safe and challenging enough to keep kids interested

By Elisa Kronish

More fun

Another kid-crowd-pleaser is the long-loved slide. Slides have come down in height, but the fun has been reassigned to other areas. Now slides have sections where kids scoot through tubes and double-slides so friends can race each other down or just go down in synch.

Kids also get a kick out of overhead events like monkey bars.

"It's great they're asking for these things," says Barnes, who's always looking at the learning aspects of each playground piece. "These are areas that are challenging for kids. Every time they can get to another rung, that kid's confidence goes up another rung too."

However, King predicts there could, naturally, be a slight increase in the number of injuries due to the more challenging apparatus.

"But it's to the benefit of kids," King says. "I don't think we should fear the increase in challenge. It's time to look at it from a kid's point of view and reach a compromise on safety vs. challenge."

Pointers to Play Time

We've gathered ideas and advice from experts to help you create a playground that's both fun and safe for kids and satisfying for the whole family. Take these into account when you start visualizing your new or improved playground.

1. Consider community needs and desires. The community can include not only parents, but child-development professionals, nurses, physical therapists and—the true experts on fun—children. You'll get great ideas, and you'll also get greater buy-in to the playground itself.

"Seek out the kids' input and seek out the parents, because they will be the ones bringing the kids," says Jay Steffen, parks and recreation manager in Grand Rapids, Mich.

2. When you have limited space, consider play-to-pay value.

"What's going to get you the best bang for your buck," says Melanie Barnes, assistant director of project management for KaBOOM! For example, if you don't have much area to work with, consider nixing the swing set, as it takes up a lot of space for the footprint as well as the safety zone around it.

3. Make sure to allot appropriate areas for proper placement of your equipment. Position structures as far from busy streets as possible and orient them so that paths offer direct access to children with physical disabilities.

4. Provide a range of playground equipment for various age groups. When working on a playground at an elementary school, for example, don't forget that the playground will also inevitably be used by older children from the greater surrounding neighborhood.

5. Always try to create equal experiences, not just minimal access, for children with disabilities. Go beyond ADA requirements, when possible.

6. Remember the comfort of parents—the longer parents want to stay at your playground, the longer the kids will have the opportunity to use your playground. Consider aspects such as sightlines, comfortable seating areas, picnic tables to eat or relax, bathroom facilities, cleanliness of the site, and proximity of the toddler and older-kids' play areas if they're separate.