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

What kids need (and want)

Children develop quickly, but their abilities obviously vary a great deal depending on their age. According to a 2004 report by the Children's Institute for Learning and Development (CHILD), many playgrounds are designed for the so-called tweens, kids between the ages of 8 and 12. However, due to the strong pull of technology like computers and video games, tweens tend to get bored with traditional playground design. Younger kids, such as toddlers and preschoolers, end up using playground equipment designed for older kids, and that's dangerous.

In another report, CHILD broke kids up into three age groups based on ability, which basically mirrors the approach of designers like Riggs:

0 to 2: CHILD calls this the "rudimentary movement phase," where children learn how to control movements like "reaching, grasping and releasing," according to the report.

"They're using their senses to direct their motors and their motors to direct their senses," Riggs says. "So we have to provide the fundamentals for that age group, which is a fence, preferably a vinyl fence that helps keep the kids in and the other kids out. We put a shade to protect their tender skin, and then we provide a surface that is clean and, as much as possible, free of debris."

CHILD recommends tactile panels, bridges, ramps, low swings and slides, and rockers.

2 to 7: Called the "fundamental movement phase," where children's movement skills progress rapidly. They can run, jump, hop, skip, throw, catch, balance themselves, etc.

"The child is beginning to be more involved with physical, social, emotional and cognitive skill development," Riggs says.

CHILD recommends bridges/ramps, swings, slides, rockers, spinners and balance activities, and Riggs says that motion apparatuses are of particular importance because they stimulate vestibular development. Kids in this age group also get "climby," according to Riggs, so designers have to keep heights in mind. As a rule of thumb, Riggs multiplies the height by a factor of 2.5 to get a feel for what kids perceive.

"What that means is that if a 3-year-old is on a 3-foot platform, when he's standing on it, actually his mind perceives it as being 2.5 times higher," Riggs says. "So that's the reason why you don't want to put a kid on a 5-foot because now he's looking at 12 or 13 foot up, and that's a scary thing for a 2- and 3-year old."

7 and up: The "specialized movement phase" transitions from learning to lifelong utilization, so kids can take on more advanced equipment like poles, nets and monkey bars, along with the usual balance activities, slides and swings. According to Riggs, once kids reach about 10 years old, the playground has more of a social importance as a gathering place.

That's also the age where they can get bored with playgrounds, and CHILD suggests that playgrounds often don't challenge kids enough. In one report, CHILD found that three factors have led to a "dumbing down" of playgrounds: the threat of litigation, inflexible safety standards and the perception that parks are unsafe for children. An unchallenging playground is an unused playground.

Some playgrounds aren't in danger of that. The new $80,000 playground at Ellis School in Fremont, N.H., has a 9-foot climbing wall and 18-foot rope pole net component. And Chaires Elementary School in Tallahassee, Fla., added a ropes course. Over the past four years, the school has renovated three of its playgrounds, each of which corresponds to a certain grade level.

"Our goal for the playgrounds was to encourage student movement and activity in order to fight childhood obesity," says Principal Christi Moss. "We wanted structures that were fun, appealing to various ages and encouraged children to move their large muscle groups during play time."

To ensure kids' safety, the staff members keep an eye on kids during play time, and all children receive an orientation on the first day of school. The new playgrounds have been extremely successful; at the Ellis School, the staff had to create a rotating schedule to accommodate all the children.