Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Play Hard

The latest in playground philosophy, design and components

By Dawn Klingensmith

Say goodbye to sameness

Community-built playgrounds, which can cost half as much as manufactured, professionally installed playgrounds, are gaining in popularity among cash-strapped schools and communities. The risk-management issues arising from community-built projects can't be ignored, though.

Ahern says many playground equipment manufacturers have "road maps to walk people through a community-built installation," but if they aren't followed to the letter, the manufacturer is off the hook, and the community assumes liability.

In fact, whenever other parties besides big manufacturers get involved with playground design, liability issues pop up, so unique custom-designed play spaces have lost ground to playgrounds furnished with prefabricated equipment from catalogs.

As a result, modular, pipe-and-platform play structures have become ubiquitous, Meihaus says.

"People are getting really tired of cookie-cutter playgrounds," he says.

A lot of modular playground equipment centers on the concept of flow-through.

"Where the kid climbs up, runs across a series of decks and slides down the other side, then runs around and does it again," Meihaus says. "It takes about 22 seconds."

That's fine for playgrounds at fast-food restaurants that don't want to encourage lingering, or perhaps for schools with short recesses. But for playgrounds where kids and parents are expected to hang out, flow-through designs quickly become dull, he contends.

One way to counteract the unrelenting sameness in playgrounds is to start with a site-specific as opposed to an equipment-centric design approach, Meihaus says.

For example, the proposed site of the Morton Arboretum's Children's Garden was expanded to include a stand of existing trees, which became an integral part of the playground design. The arboretum hired a German firm to build custom wooden playground equipment—which blends in with the natural environment—in and around the towering trees. Based on landscape architect Herb Schaal's designs, the soaring structures allow kids and adults alike to get close-up views of the canopy.

In a site-specific design, elevation changes, hills and depressions with proper drainage might be retained rather than leveled so kids can incorporate them in active and imaginative play.

"It comes down to the box," Meihaus says. "When kids get a package, what do they always end up playing with? The box. We should apply that lesson to playground design. We need to start paying more attention to the box and not just the toy inside."

What's Hot

FREESTANDING STRUCTURES Instead of being dominated by one monolithic, modular piece of play equipment, previous generations' playgrounds were made up of several freestanding elements, and industry insiders have noticed a resurgence of this type of design. And because freestanding play structures are relatively inexpensive, they're easily added to existing playgrounds to freshen and reinvigorate the space.

NEW TWISTS ON RETRO Geometric climbers and merry-go-rounds are back but with extreme makeovers. In the former category, metal bars have been replaced by high-tension cables, which transmit movement through the system for added excitement. In the latter category, one of the more creative offerings combines the thrill of a merry-go-round with the challenge of a spatial net. Kids climb on the inside of an 8-foot-tall "hot-air-balloon basket" made of cable webbing as peers spin them around. Special bearings keep rotational speed under control, though there's nothing to prevent riders from climbing outside of the basket.

SPATIAL NETS Long popular in Europe and Asia, these high-tension climbing systems have caught on in the United States. Available shapes include towers, pyramids, domes, tetrahedrons, spiders and spaceships.

REALISTIC ROCK FORMATIONS Unlike climbing walls with boldly colored grips, which also are immensely popular, faux boulders are designed to look like the real thing, with outcroppings, crannies and fissures serving as handholds and footholds. Natural-looking play structures in general are gaining favor over boldly colored components that don't complement their natural or architectural surroundings.

SPINNERS OF EVERY SORT From one-seat spinners to newfangled merry-go-rounds that can hold up to 25 kids, manufacturers are twirling out ways to satisfy kids' inexplicable desire to get dizzy.

ELECTRONIC COMPONENTS The immense popularity of video games, computers and other interactive media has some manufacturers scrambling to find ways to introduce electronic play components to the outdoors. One such device records voices and plays them back in a distorted manner. Another answers kids' questions audibly, though in the vague manner of a Magic 8 ball. Time will tell if these newly developed components can resist foul weather and rough play.