Supplement Feature - April 2009
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Play Date

Trends in Playground Equipment

By Hayli Morrison


Speaking of science, it also is fast becoming a star of the playground in more ways than one. With a societal shift toward eco-awareness, natural elements are in greater demand than ever before, both in terms of playground design and building materials.

"The fact is, for centuries, nature was children's playground because they had access to the rocks, the streams, the trees," Frost said. "But now we have most kids growing up in cities. How can you bring sufficient nature in and provide—merely through nature features—all of the same options? We need to have features in our parks and schools that will allow children to have all those advantages."

Traditional playground elements are still considered important to challenge children to grow and stretch their physical capabilities. This, however, could be mixed with green spaces, butterfly gardens and greenhouses, Frost pointed out.

"If you have recess and exclude the playground equipment, you see a lot of interesting and wonderful features of nature, but if you're ready to develop the social and physical skills, you need both," Frost said. "That's the kind of balance we're talking about here. History tells us we need balance in children's lives."

Two projects in Frost's hometown of Austin are prime examples of a good balance between nature and traditional playground elements. Redeemer Lutheran School used a half-acre of land to incorporate three playgrounds with a butterfly garden, wildflower wetland, and vegetable and herb gardens—the produce from which is fed to the schoolchildren or donated to Austin Meals on Wheels. Nearby, the 700-acre Mueller sustainable community development, on the site of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, features greenways and jogging paths alongside playgrounds and water recreation areas.

"We're seeing a type of 21st-century movement that brings balance back into people's lives so they can have access to nature again," Frost said. "The need is really severe. We can combat that, but there's got to be more to it than smelling the flowers. There's got to be a place where children can be active for an hour a day."

For nature play to truly take hold, there has to be a commitment among communities and recreation managers, experts say. Hendy expressed frustration with one project in particular, when she was asked to integrate play elements with a nearby creek to help children learn about the natural environment.

"My plans came back, and anything natural had been eliminated," she said. "All of the elements of the earth that made the playground unique—the water, the sand—were gone because they didn't want to maintain it."

Though time-consuming and potentially more costly, there are tremendous rewards in creating and maintaining nature elements in play environments. It presents exercise and learning opportunities, but can also have indirect healing effects. For that reason, Dell Children's Hospital found a home in Austin's Mueller community, where nature takes center stage.

"It can ease depression and help children heal faster," Frost said. "It tends to have an effect on their imagination, their cognitive mind, their appreciation of nature, and it has therapeutic effects."

Encouraging Age-Appropiate Play

For kids, there can be a competitive element to playgrounds. Play pushes them to stretch their physical capabilities, though it can also lead to injury. Because of this, playground equipment is designed to ensure each age level is steered toward age-appropriate activities. For instance, a rock-climbing wall may be accessible by all ages, but footholds and handholds are laid out at such a pattern and distance that each age group can find a travel route that safely suits their physical capabilities.

"Manufacturers also are using what they know about anthropometrics of children by creating equipment that is not usable by children of a younger age group," said Ken Kutska, executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute, citing the example of a three-dimensional climbing net seen on a playground in Australia.

"It was obviously designed for the school-aged group, but during the day the only kids there with moms were preschool-aged," he said. "We watched some of them be able to use the lower third of the net, but because of the way it was designed, they wouldn't go further. They couldn't quite reach to pull their bodies higher, so they'll probably wait until they're a bit older. With good design, we can provide those challenges and opportunities, but try to make sure we comply with the safety requirements."