Feature Article - January 2006
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Play to Live, Live to Play

Playground development, from design to construction and beyond

By Kyle Ryan


In fall 2005, construction began to replace a 17-year-old playground in San Francisco's Alta Plaza Park. Breaking ground on it was the culmination of a process that began in 2002, when the Friends of Alta Plaza Park formed after a city budget crisis derailed planned park improvements. Giuliana Matioli, project manager for the Friends of Alta Plaza Park, seems relieved that construction finally has begun, and she quickly admits her organization couldn't have done it by themselves.

"At the bottom line, when you've decided that you want to redo a playground, you've got to hire an architect," she says. "You can't just have the ladies of the town get together and decide to design [a playground]. It's pretty big stuff."

Matioli worked with a landscape architect from the city who had playground-design experience, and construction should be finished by summer. The playground's old wooden structure, built two years before the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, will be replaced with a large, new area split in two—one side for young children, the other for older kids. It will have a two separate climbing and play structures, a high-tech geodome climber, see-saws and all the usual stuff, with a mix of rubberized surfacing and sand for surfacing. When completed, Alta Plaza Park's new playground will be a dramatic step up from its predecessor. It also will reflect just how much playground design has changed since the 1980s.

"I think the thinking behind planning a playground is just so much more in-depth," Matioli says. "As time has passed, people just now are getting into what kids need in a play area to help them develop fully based on their age."

That's how Mike Riggs, president of Playscape Designs, Inc. in Tulsa, Okla., approaches his work. Riggs frequently refers to playgrounds as "classrooms," particularly outdoor ones.

"Adults and planners and architects who are planning for playgrounds need to understand that this playground is a learning environment for the children, not for them," Riggs says. "So what colors they pick, what functions they pick, what play elements they pick, those need to be based on child development."

Gone are the days of ordering play structures like monkey bars, throwing them on a playground and moving on to some other project.

"People want a playground," Riggs says, "but because of today's ADA laws, safety issues, installation issues, they don't realize the things that are involved when you want to pick out a piece of playground equipment. Specifically, somebody's going to call me and say they want a catalog, and they're going to talk to three or four different other people, and then they're going to go through and pick out what they like—not understanding the child-development criteria, the accessibility criteria or the safety criteria."

That's essentially what playground design comes down to: child development, play value, safety and accessibility. In the often litigious American society, you'd do well to pay particular attention to those last two. In Riggs' experience, clients often will select play equipment simply for its longevity or low price, without considering the other issues—and that kind of thinking can lead to an unused playground or, worse, a day in court.

Riggs also suggests people plan to spend half their budget on equipment, which reinforces a point he repeatedly makes: The playground doesn't begin and end with the equipment. It's the whole environment, and its needs vary by geography.

"So if you've got $20,000, you're going to buy 10,000 dollars' worth of equipment," he says. "The other $10,000 is going to be a mix between the installation, border and surfacing. And the other 50 percent that includes those three can vary if you're in the northeast or northwest, southeast or southwest or the mid part of the United States."

Just how long does the design process take?

"One hundred years," Riggs says, laughing. At least it can seem like a century. When the Trust For Public Land (TPL), a nonprofit organization that conserves land for parks, built a new playground for McKinley Elementary School in Newark, N.J., the design process took about three months, which seems pretty average.

Once the design process begins, ideas come quickly.

"You start to really keep your ears open as to 'Well, what do we do?'" Matioli says. "You have to research a little bit, but there's a lot of stuff that kind of comes to you. Once you start looking into something or keeping your ears open to something, you start to find all this information on it."

For example, be sure to investigate all the various guidelines set forth by IPEMA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), not to mention federal, state and local rules. Any qualified designer should have an understanding of these mandates.