Feature Article - January 2008
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The Play's the Thing

Innovation and Safety Meet on the Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Include the Natural Landscape

Not only does a playground that incorporates a natural environment look nicer and create a more pleasant, shady atmosphere, it also enhances learning and development for the children who play there. Surveys conducted by the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have revealed that spending time in a "green setting," such as a playground that includes trees, grass and flowers, can reduce the symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in children.

Spending time in nature can help with a child's individual growth, and also provides a way for children to learn about nature itself and perhaps become less afraid of it, Moore explained. "If we're going to do something about the global environmental crisis, it's important [for children] to become eco-literate, informed citizens," he said.

From an aesthetic standpoint, "good shade trees and flowering plants increase comfort level, and they provide a change in the landscape throughout the seasons," Moore added. And, thinking again of the adventure playground model, elements from the natural world—water, sand, dirt—can make excellent (and delightfully messy) creative playthings. To get some professional help in accomplishing these goals, bring a landscape architect into your playground planning, Moore suggested.

Playground Profile:
Sahuaro Ranch Park
in Glendale, Ariz.

Located on the cutting edge of cool places to play (and also in Glendale, Ariz.), the Sahuaro Ranch Park playground features a spherical play structure with "lots of netting," said Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation Bill Schwind. It also offers an assortment of unusual slides. "Your body actually rides them more like a banister than sitting on a metal or plastic slide," he said. "In order to use [the equipment] you're physically active, using all types of ways to get on. You get an upper-body workout with the climbing ropes, climbing through tunnels, so it has a fitness component."

Another thing the Parks and Recreation Department appreciates about this play equipment is its ability to accommodate a crowd. "You can access it and use features at any point on this structure," Schwind said. Another bonus of this setup: It's easy to add additional elements to the playground in the future, as they can be attached at either end.

Schwind is also fully confident in the safety of the playground. "It's an open park, so it's very user-friendly," he said. "Safety is a major concern of any municipality, so safety fall zones are addressed at this and all playgrounds. If [playground users] were to fall, there's nothing they can injure themselves on. The net fabric and ropes and climbing apparatus all have safety wood fiber around them." The park maintenance staff does regular inspections to ensure the playground is play-worthy, and so far, "everything is holding up quite well," Schwind reported.