Supplement Feature - April 2008
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Play Date

Planning Pleasing Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie

When it comes to assessing what parents and children want, it's important to remember that what they want in a playground can greatly differ.

"They each have their own unique view of the world," said John McConkey, product marketing manager at a Minnesota-based manufacturer of playground systems and equipment, which also assesses market and customer needs, with a focus on product development and new product launches. He noted that parents generally like something that's environmentally friendly, age-appropriate, aesthetically pleasing, safe, clean and well-maintained.

"If they bring kids, they want to know they can let their kids go off and play and explore on their own, with supervision," McConkey added. "Kids, on the other hand, are captivated by what's new, different, challenging, exciting and thrilling. They are attracted also by aesthetics and sense of the amount of relative risk they can manage. I think kids want to push their limits and grow and stretch themselves."

Being challenged tends to be part of the learning process, he explained. Some kids tend to prefer using equipment in a way it wasn't necessarily intended to create more of a challenge, and they also like things that are moving and not stationary. Moving parts tend to stimulate more tactile sensors.

Scott Hausler, director of parks and recreation for Claremont, N.H., agreed that this is something kids really like. "It keeps them engaged, challenges them and gives them the opportunity to challenge themselves," he said. "I think that's what they're looking for. Not just a set of swings and a slide, but how it's laid out and gives a child the opportunity to climb, hang, swing themselves and exercise their abilities."

Rick Maynard, director of parks, recreation and seniors department for Guilford, Conn., said that while developing their imaginations and special-thinking skills, parents and kids alike enjoy playgrounds because of the exercise involved. "Kids can get fitness in a totally fun atmosphere," he explained.

Taking into consideration what parents and children want in a playground is just the beginning of the process. Contemplating many ideas and then implementing them are big steps that can make the difference between successful, busy playgrounds and stagnant playgrounds with little activity due to poor designs, bad locations or not-so-friendly environmental assessments.

Some places end up building two playgrounds, each focused on a specific age group. Young children may find activities for older children to be over their own heads, while older children will probably find younger activities to be too simplistic and unchallenging.

Vicki Feeney, director of community service and superintendent of recreation for Sea Isle City, N.J., said it's important to make sure playgrounds contain age-group-appropriate activities. There at the Garden State playground, the play events are separated into ages 2 to 5 and then 6 to 12.

Scarbrough said that one of their playgrounds is for the younger children while the other is for the older. "We thought this was important, and a lot of thought went into it," she said. "We asked questions like, 'What are preschoolers able to do?' and came up with smaller slides that are easier to crawl up on. A 2-year-old moves around differently than a 12-year-old."

Once you have playgrounds that meet the needs of your target youth, make sure your playground is compliant with federal regulations, Feeney noted. Specifically, the regulations include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the guidelines established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). "Also, when choosing the playground components, focus on events that will strengthen and enhance the body while children are playing," she said.

Safety is a strong consideration even when planning even a small home-improvement project, and playgrounds are definitely no exception. French-Lee said that there's a wide array of safety issues to consider: making sure the rubberized matting is safe, no sharp edges in the materials, no splinters in wood, making sure that the structures to be climbed are age-appropriate for the height of the children, and so on.

"Some [rubber mats] get too hot in the summer and burn kids," she explained. "Also, if you look for high quality, make sure there are a variety of activities in playground—bounce balls, pedal bikes, jumping, skipping and running. These are important for the development of motor skills."