Guest Column - July/August 2005
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Taking a Childish Approach to Aquatic Play Design

Splash Play Areas

By Stephen Hamelin

Zero-depth aquatic play environments remain popular in today's recreation market. More and more splash play areas are appearing in city parks and recreational facilities every day. Watch one in action and it's easy to see that children love them. Colorful play products. Wild spray cannons. Refreshing water jets. There really is a lot to initially get excited about.

But what about long-term excitement? With most manufacturers offering a "pick your part" service, you're invited to mix and match components and assemble an attractive splash play area. This approach may result in short-term excitement for the community. However, unless the products have been carefully selected with users in mind, the novelty may be short-lived.

The true goal of building any public play area is to create a safe environment that will entertain kids for many years to come. That means generating lasting excitement and interest. How do you ensure that? By designing an effective splash play area that delivers long-term play value. To be effective, your facility must connect with kids. It must engage their boundless imagination, energy and fascination. Most of all, it has to be fun for them. So the first step in designing a great splash play area is to understand how children play—alone, together and as they grow.

No, you don't need to study child psychology or travel back in time to revisit the joys of childhood play. Just start with these fundamental rules, and you'll be creating more popular and engaging play areas in no time.

Rule #1: Passive is passé.

As children, we are curious, energetic and eager to learn. Hungry young minds crave stimulation and discovery. Growing bodies constantly seek outlets for inexhaustible energy. So it's really no surprise that kids invariably prefer active entertainment instead of passive.

If you randomly select play products, you may end up with a splash play area that emphasizes form over child-engaging function. Sure, that large spraying flower looks nice. But how much play value and interaction does it actually offer? A play area comprised entirely of passive products—like arches, spray posts and ground sprays—might be very attractive to adults. Unfortunately, it may fail to hold the interest of a child.

To create an aquatic play environment that children will flock to year after year, focus on maximum interaction and imagination. The most modern and inspired splash play areas available today are loaded with interactive features and play value. They are designed to make the most of a child's natural inclination for active entertainment.

Rule #2: Same is lame.

Despite a shared enjoyment of active play, no two children are alike. What one finds intriguing and exciting, another may find simplistic or difficult. When it comes to kids and aquatic play products, one size does not fit all. And this is especially true with a public splash play area where different age groups, aptitudes and social backgrounds are present on any given day.

The most effective play areas offer exciting play opportunities for all age groups and abilities. One sure way to create a balanced play environment is to include at least three dynamic zones of play within your splash play area. Each sector should feature engaging play products that are tailored to the spirit of play of a particular age range and energy level such as:

TODDLERS: Infants and toddlers should be able to explore color, texture and movement with soft mists and gentle water streams. A dumping bucket pouring water from 12 feet above is great fun for older kids but imposing for tots. Ideally, the zone should be filled with intriguing, non-intimidating experiences such as soft ground sprays and above-grade products that are scaled down for the little ones. This area should provide a fun, fascinating and gentle introduction to the world of aquatic play.

YOUNG ADVENTURERS: Imagination-inspiring landscapes with cross-generational products like water tunnels and dumping buckets create a setting for social interaction and family play. Ideally, this zone should contain play experiences that can be enjoyed independently as well as with others.

HIGH-ENERGY, ACTION SEEKERS: Older children are attracted to high-energy play zones with products that encourage teamwork and friendly competition. This zone should offer engaging cause-and-effect activities that inspire excitement and cooperative play.