Feature Article - July/August 2006
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Play Hard

The latest in playground philosophy, design and components

By Dawn Klingensmith

Stiff competition

If conventional playgrounds don't seem quite as cool to kids as they used to be, that's because they're up against some stiff competition. Splash play areas have proliferated, and kids love them. Parks departments like them, too, because full automation and no standing water mean there's often no need to staff the site with attendants or lifeguards. The Houston Parks and Recreation Department in Texas oversees 11 splash play areas featuring misters, sprayers, oscillating sprinklers and in-ground geysers.

Due to the proven popularity of water features, planners have begun to incorporate them in conventional playground designs. Some are naturalistic, such as the Secret Stream in the Morton Arboretum's Children Museum, where kids can race cork boats downstream. Others do double-duty as play apparatus and art, such as the cement fish that spews water to the delight of dripping-wet toddlers at Washington Park Playground in Springfield, Ill. And then there are stationary water guns and cannons that allow kids to engage in aqua combat.

When adding water features to playgrounds, planners must use caution in regards to placement. Water features should not be adjacent to any type of apparatus that involves gripping and climbing, since kids' hands and shoes will get wet, Meihaus says.

Unfortunately, for some kids, playgrounds of any type pale in comparison to sedentary indoor pastimes like playing videogames and fiddling with electronics, so playground designers are starting to bring interactivity and electronic components into the outdoors. Tiger Paw Park Playground in Hillman, Mich., features a device that records children's voices and plays them back in a distorted fashion, with a few extra sound effects thrown in for fun.

Finally, there's the Six Flags factor.

"Sometimes I think we expect too much from playgrounds," Meihaus says. "Kids complain that they're boring. Well, yeah, that's because you just came from Six Flags. A 6-foot slide is going to feel boring."

Rather than trying to compete with amusement parks, Meihaus says playground designers might win children back by creating play spaces that rev up the imagination as opposed to just raising adrenaline.

"Play is not as complicated as we try to make it," he says.

Ahern concurs: "The playground designers and the parks managers and the parents all think kids need some fancy type of equipment to make them happy, but all you really need is to put them in a place that encourages interaction, and together kids will find the fun."