Feature Article - January 2008
Find a printable version here

The Play's the Thing

Innovation and Safety Meet on the Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Construct Creatively

If the opportunity to craft your playground into a bastion of safety, fun and learning sounds appealing, consider the following suggestions as your guide to get there:

Get Adventurous

Several of the experts consulted for this story mentioned "adventure playgrounds," which have been popular in Europe for years, but a little slow to catch on stateside, as a great model for play.

"At adventure playgrounds children get to play how they choose," explains Lia Sutton, an adventure playground researcher, on her Web site (adventureplaygrounds.hampshire.edu). "They are not limited by fixed play equipment or by organized activities or games. Children are given the safety of an enclosed supervised environment. Playworkers are always present to mediate disputes between children and help them when necessary."

Ideally, these sorts of playgrounds "extend the typical playground to incorporate natural materials, a storage place, natural habitats, construction materials, sand and water," Frost said. "A typical park playground includes none of those features, only manufactured equipment and swings—large structures," he explained.

Look for ways to create unstructured areas with the building blocks kids may need to play together imaginatively. "When children have an opportunity to play in mixed groups, older kids do tend to pitch in," Frost said. However, it's likely that parents or other play supervisors will need to be present as well. Which brings us to the next suggestion...

Provide Amenities for Caregivers

In today's world, it's not particularly useful to talk about "children's playgrounds," Moore said, "because children don't go there on their own anymore, or even with peer groups, we're beginning to discover in research. So locations have to be relevant to caregivers. That's a new reality parks departments need to face."

Don't just smack some play equipment down in the center of a cleared site and call it a day. After all, it makes the playground safer when children bring their own supervision. Consider all the potential users and the features you can add that will make their visit more enjoyable—and perhaps more lengthy.

"If [a playground is] not comfortable in terms of shade and seating, people won't stay and won't enjoy it," Hendy said. "We forget that adults still like to swing."

More than swinging, adults also like to be out of the sun and to have a spot to change their babies, use the restroom or perhaps even buy a snack. "Bathrooms are crucial," Moore said.

And what about comfortable picnic areas, barbecue spots or water play areas to cool off together? Practically speaking, "very few parks recognize the needs of families with very young children in public," Moore said. "What about an enclosed, fenced area for toddlers so parents can feel safe? A space like that is appreciated by young parents, and it's good to have places where they can meet in open, social situations."

And these aren't just luxuries. Many of the options that will make your playground more inviting will also make it universally accessible—and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant. When wide, pleasant paths are constructed to make a play area accessible to children with special needs, "we're also making it accessible to mothers with infants and toddlers in a stroller, also to a grandparent who is using a walker or a cane and might not be as steady on their feet as they were at one time," Hendy said. "If we have seating with arm rests, that makes it easy for senior citizens to get up and down off of the bench. A great playground is really one that brings people of all ages and abilities together."