Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Play Hard

The latest in playground philosophy, design and components

By Dawn Klingensmith

Fun for all

In addition to the previously discussed existing and emerging trends—taller and more physically challenging equipment, increasing interest in site-specific and community-built playgrounds, inviting nature into play areas, and catering to crawlers and preteens—several other playground issues are commanding attention of late. Foremost among these is universal accessibility, Meihaus says. Organizations like Boundless Playgrounds and Shane's Dream are ushering in an era where children with disabilities reasonably can expect to play side-by-side with able-bodied peers in an integrated environment (as opposed to many unimaginatively ADA-compliant playgrounds with ramps and little else for mobility-challenged kids).

Universally accessible playgrounds might include such elements as sandboxes raised to table-height so children in wheelchairs can dig and build, ramps leading all the way to the highest decks on play structures, swings with high backs and armrests, and play equipment configured in such a way that all children can play at their highest level of ability without feeling set apart from the action.

Meihaus says the playground industry still has a long way to go in regards to accessibility, pointing out that just because a playground is ADA-compliant doesn't necessarily mean that disabled children will find it exciting. He feels that accessibility is another area where more emphasis on creative and imaginative play—or different types of active play—might do a world of good.

"Right now there's so much emphasis on getting disabled kids onto the play structure, but if they get up there, and there's nothing they can do, where's the fun in that?" he asks. "But a child in a wheelchair can still play tag and hide-and-seek," he says, making a case for less equipment-centric playgrounds.

Ahern says that the social interaction that occurs when disabled kids have full access to play structures, if not all the equipment hanging off them, leads to its own kind of fun. With opportunities for social interaction in place, kids will find ways to make merry.

"Even if it's rolling pebbles down the slide," he says.

Building mental muscle

Recognizing that play is not just a way of blowing off steam but also a means of learning, planners of school and community playgrounds often incorporate educational components into their designs or go all out and build what is known as a learning playground. Educational aspects can be as subtle as cementing faux fossils into the bottom of the sandbox so children can make-believe they are architects unearthing dinosaur remains.

Based on input from students, parents and teachers, the community-built playground at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School in Baton Rouge, La., bills itself as a learning playground that's intended to build brains as well as biceps. Side-by-side slides with differently textured surfaces are used by science teachers to demonstrate friction, and spinners impart a firsthand understanding of centrifugal force. The impending second phase of construction calls for a pavilion area with tables that will serve as an outdoor classroom by day and a community picnic area after hours. A gears panel and a pendulum also will be added.

Excepting instrumental panels that bring sound into the play space, Meihaus says he's not a huge fan of activity panels on playgrounds, from what he has witnessed.

"Children usually zoom right by them," he explains. "They're just plain old walls as far as they're concerned."

Indeed, research suggests that activity panels aren't commonly used independently by children, but that they do encourage interactions between adults and kids on playgrounds.

Meihaus cautions that no matter how durably constructed, panels and other components with lots of moving parts tend not to withstand rigorous playground conditions.

"With kids, if there's a wheel, they're going to find out if it will go backwards, and if so, how fast," he says. "And if something is designed to hold sand, kids will find out if it will hold a big rock. They don't necessarily set out to break things, but that's usually the end result."

Once, when a prospective client came to him with designs for an elaborate sand-play structure with wheels, pulleys and other moving parts, Meihaus refused to build it on the grounds that the client would suffer buyer's remorse when the equipment failed. Undeterred, the client had the contraption built by someone else.

"And within six months, there wasn't a darn thing on it that still worked," Meihaus says.

However, six months after the grand opening of the Children's Garden at the Morton Arboretum, all the metal flowers with the noisemakers at their centers are still in working order, though the xylophone has started to rust thanks to the Midwestern weather.