Feature Article - September 2004
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Go Play

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

By Elisa Kronish

Is anything left?

With restrictions and risks enough to send lawyers into a frenzy, what's left to make a playground fun? For some time after the safety guidelines came into play on playgrounds, equipment options were a little disappointing, and some still are.

"We frequently get letters from parents saying, 'We just got a new playground, and there's nothing to do,'" King says. "If we continue to dumb-down our playgrounds, kids will be so bored, they'll leave in five minutes."

Hence, the recent movement to put some of the that good ol' thrill back in playgrounds. Equipment manufacturers have realized they need to come up with new ideas that are safe, yet still challenging and fun.

"They're not taking the fun out of playgrounds," Johnson says. "Other items are just taking the place of old ones."

Constant creativity is key.

"I feel like the playground equipment manufacturers have done amazing things keeping to safety guidelines and still coming up with creative play," says Melanie Barnes, assistant director for project management at nonprofit community-build organization, KaBOOM!

So what's new and challenging? There's plenty, and more on the way all the time.

Playground climbing walls continue to rise in popularity. Not expert versions, but kid-sized, with peaks at maybe three feet high.

"Rock-climbing is huge," Barnes says. "About 80 percent of the playgrounds we've worked on recently want some kind of climbing wall."

Besides the fun factor, like all playground components, climbing walls have an added bonus: "They're great for building upper- and lower-body strength."

Some adults worry about the safety of the climbing walls.

"Something may seem unsafe to parents, but we know it meets safety guidelines, and we can educate them on that," says Sarah Pinsky, KaBOOM! spokesperson. "A lot of it has to do with the importance of proper safety surfacing."

To match your playground environment, manufacturers keep adding new colors to climbing walls, so you can make it wild and bright or go subdued and earthy.

Another popular playground piece is the faux boulder.

"When they use their imagination, a boulder can become a mountain, a car, a volcano, whatever they want," Barnes says.

In Peoria, Ariz., one of the city playgrounds was chosen in spring 2004 to participate as a guinea pig for the manufacturer of these big artificial rocks, which can be as large as 8 feet high by 13 feet long by 8 feet wide. Made of glass fiber reinforced concrete, the materials are durable against the elements and may last for decades. Plus, the novelty of it as an alternative to classic play structures attracts curious kids.

"It looks like one great big boulder that's been dropped into the middle of the playground," says Kirk Haines, parks manager for the City of Peoria. "The kids are really drawn to it. They sort of look at it and think, 'Hmmmmm...' And then they start climbing on it."

Kids learn problem-solving skills by finding different ways to reach the top of the rocks. They challenge themselves by seeing how far they can jump off of it (with lots of safety surfacing below, of course). And they assemble on top of it as a novel kind of social gathering spot.

"It takes creative play to a new level," says Haines, who has been pleased with the response from kids, parents and city officials. "I suspect that when the city council is able to authorize some budgeted funds, we'll purchase more," he says.