Supplement Feature - April 2010
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A Natural Trend

Natural Environment Enhances Playground Designs

By Dawn Klingensmith

"We don't want to make tree forts and things that look like they came off an assembly line," said Todd Lehman, a designer with the Golden Valley, Minn.-based company. "We match things to specific sites. Depending on what part of the country you're in, we can match the rock color and tree species so they look indigenous."

The company also is on board with the concepts of site-specific design, wide-open green spaces and placing equipment in larger areas or even off to the side, Lehman said. "The more that children, instead of just playing on the play structures, have an opportunity to play and immerse themselves in the surrounding environment, their senses will be so heightened that they will play longer and gain more out of the experience."

And playing longer and covering more ground could help counteract childhood obesity. Physically challenging equipment like climbers and circuit play systems certainly make sense in today's playgrounds; but though manufacturers several years ago began making equipment specifically designed to promote strength building and aerobic activity, it may be the case that simply by offering an expanded environment, kids naturally will increase their activity levels.

Unplugged and Active

Combating childhood obesity and getting kids off the couch and into the great outdoors is a top priority for parks and recreation departments, and many have thought of some creative ways to achieve those goals. For example, when the Conejo Recreation and Park District in Thousand Oaks, Calif., recently renovated one of its parks, finding a way to lure teens away from videogames was a primary objective. To that end, the district installed an electronic play system designed for playground use and billed by its manufacturer as "an electronic game for the heart and lungs—not just the thumbs."

"With the music and the lights—it's like bringing videogames outside but adding a pretty intense aerobic workout," said Conejo's parks and planning administrator, Tom Hare.

Kids can play alone or in teams, racing each other and the clock in an effort to keep up with a sequence of lights and sounds.

"Do you remember Simon?" asked Hare, referring to the classic electronic memory game. "I loved that little flying saucer, and this is sort of like that," only players run, dodge one another and jump to press buttons on a large panel. There are also elements reminiscent of the videogame, "Dance Dance Revolution."