Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Play Hard

The latest in playground philosophy, design and components

By Dawn Klingensmith

New kids on the block

Another new phenomenon in playground design is the focus on babies between 6 and 23 months of age.

"Until recently, manufacturers and designers never acknowledged that age group's existence," Meihaus says.

Typically, playground design is aimed at one of two age groups: 2- to 5-year-olds or 5- to 12-year-olds. But with studies suggesting that play activity during infancy is much more important for the development of gross motor skills than previously thought, playground designers have begun to create outdoor play spaces with infants and crawlers in mind. Though still an emerging trend, the practice is common enough that ASTM recently came out with new guidelines specific to that age group.

Infant playgrounds should be separate from older kids' playgrounds not only for safety reasons but also because 6- to 23-month-olds have unique needs, experts say. Above and beyond infant swings, babies require space to move about freely under the watchful eye of guardians. They need soft surfaces to crawl, roll and lie on, as well as things to grip, grasp and pull up on. They need rounded edges for safety's sake.

The infant playgrounds that Meihaus has seen generally feature some type of poured-in-place surface, perhaps with slight elevation changes or steps for crawlers to master. Short tunnels and activity panels with mirrors, sliding beads and other visual, tactile and aural stimuli can be incorporated into obstacle course- or maze-like configurations to satisfy babies' need to explore while allowing for maximum supervision by guardians.

"The idea is to create space where a person with an infant can put the baby down and let them crawl around," Meihaus says, which can't safely be done on an older kids' playground or in proximity to wood chips and other choking hazards.

Adjacent to its full-size evergreen maze, the Morton Arboretum has a special maze with a resilient poured-in-place path and sticker-free plantings that are just shin-high to an adult but a fun challenge to toddlers on all fours or early walkers.

In addition to addressing the needs of babies, playground planners and manufacturers have begun to think of the 5- to 12-year-old segment as two distinct groups because what thrills 5-year-olds will likely bore finicky preteens.

"Kids 8 and older have a tendency to move away from playground equipment, so manufacturers face a real challenge in getting them active again at recess," Ahern says. Circuit play systems address older kids' need to compete and don't bear the perceived stigma of being "babyish," he adds.

Although Ellis School in Fremont, N.H., had a playground, it was geared to younger kids, and Principal Kelli Killen grew concerned that the older students were standing around rather than exercising during their break. After Ellis adopted a wellness policy requiring students to keep active during breaks, most of the seventh and eighth graders walked around the school's playing field in circles. A new playground was planned to give them more options, and a student advisory group was formed to find out what type of equipment would appeal to older kids. The results were so successful that a rotating schedule was devised so every child would get a turn on the equipment. Some teachers even offer extra playground time as an incentive for good behavior.

The playground's centerpiece is an 18-foot-tall spatial net shaped something like a pyramid.

A 9-foot-tall climbing rock ranks a close second in popularity, suggesting that older kids are enthusiastic climbers.

Indeed, when Dalton of the Naperville Park District asks older kids what playground features please them, climbing elements are often tops.

"They tell me climbing walls, and that thick cargo netting that's almost like a cobweb formation to climb on," he reports.

And at the Morton Arboretum Children's Garden, age is a determining factor in equipment popularity, with older kids gravitating to the net crawl and younger kids mobbing the playhouses and sand features.