Supplement Feature - April 2009
Find a printable version here

Play Date

Trends in Playground Equipment

By Hayli Morrison


swing isn't just a swing anymore, but can double as a wind instrument. And these days, a ladder isn't the only way to climb; rock walls are also du jour. Perhaps the most significant playground design change is in physical educational curriculum, where slides and jungle gyms are now every bit as likely to be employed to get kids active as that infamous climbing rope.

Altogether, playgrounds have evolved a long way from the first half of the 20th century, when they were dominated by manufactured steel equipment and concrete or packed dirt surfacing. In the 1950s and '60s, playground elements slowly began to take on more imaginative themes, though these still did not fully engage children.

"The changes reflected the changes in our culture, such as the space program," said Dr. Joe Frost, Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas in Austin. "They developed space-themed and Western-themed aspects, and many of these were of more interest to adults than children."

In the 1970s, wooden playground construction became the hot new trend, until it was discovered that wood required more maintenance. Thus, experimentation began with new materials, most notably plastic. Over time, developments in the industry made these new materials more viable and affordable.

"Plastics weren't even considered years ago. Now some of our plastics are as strong as steel," said Teri Hendy, president of SiteMasters Inc.

"I remember years ago, 'Oh, we'll never have a single-piece spiral slide. It's just too expensive,'" added Ken Kutska, executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute. "You look now at how many manufacturers have that and what's gone into making them more durable."

He added, "The industry went through a sort of copycat era, and still are to some extent. Some are investing in research and development, and if they discover something, it doesn't take long for it to spread to the general marketplace. You see someone come out with something new, and next year everybody's got it."

One trend seen currently in many playgrounds is a more basic design, with less of a risk element. That trend, however, is more consumer-driven than industry-driven, according to Hendy.

"When we get accused of 'dumbing down' playgrounds, it's not often the manufacturer who's doing that. It's the consumer," she said. "They're concerned about liability and maintenance."