Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Play Hard

The latest in playground philosophy, design and components

By Dawn Klingensmith

The sky's the limit

Ed Dalton, director of parks for Naperville, Ill., says the skyward trend comes on the heels of a more cautious era, when heights were kept to a minimum.

"Right now, from what I've seen in the catalogs, it seems like we're going back to taller playgrounds," he says.

Bob Meihaus of Playground Consulting and Design in St. Louis concurs about the pendulum swinging the other way.

"Five years ago, you didn't go above 6 feet in a public park," he says. "Now, you can buy 25-foot mega-towers."

Whatever is driving the trend (competition, consumer demand or both), not every manufacturer is taking part when it comes to height.

"There's a division and two different schools of thought among manufacturers," says Tim Ahern, president-elect of the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association. "In my opinion, one doesn't need to go 15 or 18 feet up in the air to have fun."

Meihaus and Ahern both worry that if structures continue to get higher and higher, a corresponding rise in injury rates may result. Indeed, a Canadian study found that among children playing on equipment higher than eight feet, injuries were three times the usual rate.

The Morton Arboretum's Children's Garden is a unique case because the custom-built lookout's height was motivated by a desire to get kids up close to the site's existing trees, which is consistent with the arboretum's educational mission. Moreover, the railed-in Canopy Walk is inaccessible from below so kids can't crawl around on the outside. In contrast, some manufactured mega-structures are prime targets for unintended usage.

In observing children at play on taller equipment, the authors of Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds, available from the Association for Childhood Education International, report seeing kids shinnying atop tunnel slides, walking across the rungs of horizontal ladders, perching on protective railings and climbing on the outside of play structures up to 13 feet tall.

"Children have a unique talent for making a fool out of the best designers," Meihaus says. "With everything you design or create, you have to stand back and think, 'Now, what opportunities for misuse have I created?' If there's a roof 10 feet up in the air, it probably won't be long before you have a kid sitting on it."

While flipping through a recent playground equipment catalog, Dalton pauses over a two-story structure that seems all but impossible to fall from.

"But unfortunately, any time you do something really high, kids aren't necessarily using it the way it was designed to be used," he says, unless supervisors put a stop to it. "Kids will find a way to climb on the outside."

For this and other reasons, Dalton believes the trend toward taller playground structures will have a limited lifespan.

"I think in a few years," he says, "it will swing back so things are lower to the ground."