Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Play Hard

The latest in playground philosophy, design and components

By Dawn Klingensmith

What Do Kids Want?

After Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School in Baton Rouge, La., announced plans to build a new playground, before putting pen to paper, designers met with more than 400 students and asked them to draw their ideal playground. In addition to climbing walls, which are relatively new to playgrounds, two tried-and-true components held sway in hundreds of student drawings—slides and swing sets.

"Slides were a big thing, and so were swings," says project chairwoman Kara Frank. "The kids all wanted a tall slide," she adds, though there were variations on the theme: "Some wanted an open slide, some wanted a covered slide, some wanted a spiral slide."

Were all playground designers simply to ask rather than trying to divine what it is that children want, slides and swings likely would be the predominant response, says Bob Meihaus of Playground Consulting and Design in St. Louis. "Invariably, kids want swings," he says, but nowadays it seems they're less likely to get them.

Today's stricter safety standards call for costly surfacing around swing sets to cushion falls, and since swings require lots of room on either side of them to reduce impact injuries, they're widely seen as space hogs. Thus, according to the National Program for Playground Safety, only 57 percent of school playgrounds had swing sets in 2004. Seventy-nine percent of public parks had them, down from 95 percent four years earlier. In response to student demand, though, Westdale Heights will join the minority of schoolyards that have swings when the next phase of playground construction gets underway.

Slides are a different story: 94 percent of playgrounds had them in 2004. However, heights have come down in recent years in an effort to prevent falls, so the "newest thing" among manufacturers is devising ways to make slides faster, Meihaus says. One way is to tilt the bed way at a steep 45 degrees, ending in a long run-out to slow the dismount.

It goes without saying that kids' suggestions aren't always practical. Westdale Heights' mascot is a wizard, so many students asked for a castle theme, which planners considered. However, the kids also wanted a moat. Drowning risks aside, "in Louisiana we have too many mosquitoes for that sort of thing," Frank says with a laugh.

Exercising the imagination

While Meihaus realizes that vigorous play has its place on the playground, he worries that the current emphasis on active physical play is edging out imaginative and creative play and is perhaps contributing to the high rate of playground injuries.

Joe Frost, who co-authored Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds, expressed similar concerns three years ago when he told the Associated Press:

"What is lacking on most American playgrounds are the materials, the spaces and the equipment for other forms of play—make-believe, organized games, creative play with things like sand and water, nature areas and gardens, and building materials, and people around who know how to involve children in those things."

Child-development experts agree that in addition to physical activities like running, jumping, climbing and swinging, playgrounds should promote fantasy and dramatic play, as research suggests that the latter types of play have salubrious effects on children's cognitive development, peer relationships and emotional well-being. Additionally, Frost's research suggests that children engage longer, suffer fewer injuries and exhibit fewer behavior problems on playgrounds that promote the various kinds of play, not just physical activity.

Playgrounds, then, ideally should combine intimate spaces—such as cubbies, foxholes and tunnels—with social and wide-open spaces, many experts contend. While wide-open spaces promote physical games such as tag, private and protected spaces promote imaginative play, enabling solitary or small groups of kids to transport themselves anywhere from a store to a submarine.

Though published in 1974, the book Build Your Own Playground by Jeremy Joan Hughes makes a point that is still relevant today:

"Play demands the segregation of a small group of kids because they are creating a world of make-believe," Hughes writes. "And if too many people get involved… it suddenly stops working. I can convince four kids that I'm the archbishop, but 40 kids I can't."

Meihaus, who designed and built custom playground equipment for 23 years before founding Playground Consulting and Design, says one way to encourage imaginative play is to put more thought into the play structure itself, not just the equipment or events hanging off of it.

"I used to judge [my designs]," he says, "by mentally stripping all of the slides and everything off and asking, 'Is there any reason why kids would want to go on the structure itself, or is all the play value confined to the equipment hanging off it?'"

Multiple levels, creative ins and outs, and imaginative interiors are all ways of adding play value to the structure itself. Meihaus wishes manufacturers would put more thought into the undersides of structures as opposed to what's up in the air.

"That's a whole new environment that gets overlooked," he says, and it's ideal for enticing kids into role-playing.

However, with some safety advocates pushing for total-visibility safety standards, which would require clear, unobstructed sight lines to every point on the playground, Meihaus worries that kid-sized crannies will be eliminated. Ahern already has noticed a trend toward unimpeded sight lines.