Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Play Hard

The latest in playground philosophy, design and components

By Dawn Klingensmith

Let's get physical

Meihaus says increased heights are part of a larger trend—stemming in part from concerns about childhood obesity rates—toward making playgrounds more physically challenging. Climbers, for example, work every major muscle group while providing a mental challenge as well, so not surprisingly, scalable play features of every conceivable size and shape are cropping up in catalogs and playgrounds. Popular varieties including realistic rock structures, climbing walls, spatial net climbers, and new spins on the old metal geodesic or geometric climbers.

Climbers are proven kid-pleasers, especially the ones that simulate real rock climbing. When Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School in Baton Rouge, La., resolved to build a new playground, before putting pen to paper, designers solicited drawings of ideal playgrounds from some 400 students.

"Rock walls were huge," says Kara Frank, project chairwoman. "They all wanted a rock wall to climb on."

The simplest climbing walls are two-dimensional and have holes for handholds and footholds. In many cases, these climbers are attached to play structures to enable children to climb onto a deck. A more sophisticated variation of the climbing wall consists of a vertical, sometimes curvilinear, climbing surface with molded plastic grips mounted into the surface.

Realistic boulder formations—often made from sculpted concrete or fiberglass molded from real rocks for maximum realism—also are key sellers. Some are as large as 12 feet high by 6 feet wide by 10 feet long, but recreation managers are happy to plunk them down in parks because they look natural and get plenty of use, says Ahern, who is also president and CEO of a playground equipment manufacturer.

Sculptural play features, such as the scalable acorns at the Morton Arboretum's Children's Garden, put an artsy twist on climbers. Some playground companies offers climbers shaped like petrified tree stumps and giant baseball mitts. The University of California in Santa Barbara added cement-and-epoxy gorillas to a campus playground. The primates are in a knuckle-dragging stance so kids can clamber on board for piggyback rides.

Spatial nets in three-dimensional web configurations, such as pyramids, rockets or tetrahedrons, also are valued by planners and children for the physical and mental challenge they present, with some soaring as high as 18 feet. Because the high-tension cables flex as kids grab or step on them, movement is transmitted through the system so climbers develop a sharper sense of balance and improved hand-eye coordination.

When buying a climber of any sort, make certain the designers didn't put all their thought into climbing and none into egress, Meihaus cautions, adding that equipment should allow children to descend without jumping. That sounds reasonable and simple enough, but remember that when kids reach the top, there are bodies below them trying to do the same, so exiting gets tricky.

Playground equipment that emphasizes building upper-body strength in particular, and fitness in general, is taking up more and more real estate in playgrounds and manufacturers' catalogs, largely in response to obesity concerns. Circuit play systems are a new class of equipment designed to combine fitness and fun. These systems consist of a variety of ground-level play and fitness components set up like a combination obstacle and agility course, complete with overhead elements, walls to scale and low balance beams that tilt as kids walk across them. Each station works a different muscle group, and the circuit as a whole is deigned to improve balance, agility and stamina. Circuit play systems therefore present kids with a physical and mental challenge without resorting to excessive heights. However, as manufacturers compete to make circuits increasingly challenging, the heavier kids they are meant to help may be physically incapable of using them, Meihaus notes.