Feature Article - November 2008
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More Than Child's Play

Thinking Outside the Sandbox

By Kelli Anderson


lay is not what it used to be. And by many accounts, that's a good thing. In recent years America's playgrounds, playground designers and communities are discovering there is more to consider than safety, more to achievement than fitness and more people who need to play besides children. From the philosophical underpinnings to the nuts-and-bolts manufacturing, play and play spaces are undergoing important changes in an effort to address today's cultural challenges.

Boredom: The Mother of Invention

Perhaps topping the list of those challenges—at least in terms of collective awareness—is childhood obesity, for which the sedentary lure of technology has been partly to blame. And when compared to the overly-cautious designs of so many playgrounds, it's not hard to see why children prefer virtual adventures with Mario and Luigi to low-level swings and slides. Some communities, however, have decided it's time to fight fire with fire. Play elements are going high-tech.

"We renovated one of two play areas midsummer and installed a system which allows a lot more interaction with teens, kids, adults and even seniors," said Shauna Welty, park planner for Conejo Recreation and Park District in Thousand Oaks, Calif., about the newly revamped Conejo North Creek Park. "One standing piece is a 15-foot long computerized panel. You can set it at different levels and speeds, and when it starts, it's set to music with blinking lights. You compete to touch the lights—it's totally interactive and whole teams can play or just little kids. The electronic market potential is huge."

The response since its opening has been tremendous and has even resulted in lines of players waiting their turn during heavily attended festival weekends. But regardless of high-traffic weekends or quiet weekdays, it is in constant use.

Welty cited another example of mentally and physically challenging equipment at the park, an intricately webbed net-climber, which has also attracted users of all ages. "People want uniqueness. Many of our parks have a single feature which is unique," Welty said. "I think

as a rule people are interested in the more interactional. They're expecting more out of the mental and physical side."

Teresa Hendy, president of Site Master Inc. a design and safety consulting company based in Cincinnati, Ohio, and newly appointed board member of The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), agrees. "I think we're seeing more innovative products which are more physically and mentally challenging," Hendy said. "Linked climbers, for example, force kids to think how they're going to move next and to plan their routes. There are also more options for how to approach equipment—easy, medium and more challenging. More equipment is being developed with age appropriateness in mind and with graduated levels of challenge."

According to Hendy society as a whole has been reluctant to accept the reality that every play area has risk, and in an all-out-effort to eradicate it, play equipment and designs had become dumbed down and boring. Thankfully, this is changing.

"We now have some state-of-the-art systems based on climbing to appeal to older children who are typically more idle and need to keep fit and busy," said Susan Altamura, president of a distributing company in Jupiter, Fla. "There was a trend where safety was such an issue that it wasn't fun. There's got to be challenge to be fun and that's what's changing."

After decades in which the pendulum of play element and playground design had swung in favor of safety at the expense of creativity and challenge, the industry is finally experiencing a much-needed shift toward fun and a more holistic approach to play.