Feature Article - November 2011
Find a printable version here

Finding the Way to Fun

Big Ideas to Help Create Your Superior Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Natural Elements and Free Play   

Building on the current trends toward inclusive play and multigenerational play, as well as the concept that interaction with nature can be an important part of child development, another big idea on today's playgrounds is incorporating the natural world—both as landscaping to create a welcoming, colorful, and shaded scene, and as free-form elements within a space that encourage child-directed, creative play. "Pinecones become bartering tools, and leaves and loose twigs become building materials," Spencer said.

But that's not to say you can replace all your playgrounds with lovely green fields and be done with it. "Studies have shown that environments that combine nature and the built environment enjoy the highest use patterns by children and families," said Spencer, referring again to the 2007 study by Moore and Cosco. A number of playground equipment manufacturers now offer elements featuring earth-toned materials that will blend with the surrounding landscape, rather than standing out as something separate. Some even offer nature-themed pieces like tree houses or inhabitable hollow logs to further enhance the connection. And, of course, there's always the customized option, in which case the sky's the limit as to what you might create.

Consider adding plants that attract butterflies to your existing playground spaces, or plant some trees that will provide shade—and perhaps even fruit—as they mature. And a little area with sand, water and the opportunity to mix the two can provide hours of entertainment for kids of all ages.

"It's a funny thing," said Cutts. "Some playgrounds are overdesigned. They [feel they] have to be because of the need to control behavior, but if there's any way to celebrate the local environment, [do that] and then do the basics: water, sand and sticks," she suggested. "A loose stick can be anything."

Depending on how many and what kind of loose elements you decide to include, you may also want to include some "play facilitators" at your playground to be sure things are being used appropriately (not as weapons) and not vandalized or stolen.

Appropriate Challenge   

No one wants an accident to occur on their watch or to incur the public relations nightmare that can result from an injury in our litigious society, but playgrounds that consider safety alone may ultimately be doing everyone a disservice.

Paige Johnson, whose Playscapes blog keeps tabs on playground design, notes that "it's been well-documented in academic studies that making playgrounds too safe—dumbing them down too much—causes children to use them in ways for which they were not designed in order to add interest and risk to the play experience. So paradoxically, a too-safe playground becomes dangerous."

Of course safety is important—and legally required—but it should be considered in the context of risk and reward. "If we thought about risk alone, we'd swaddle all children in bubble wrap and keep them inside," she said. "But then they'd definitely be obese and unhealthy, which is no reward."

Cutts agreed that risk-taking can be a slippery slope, but one that's essential to navigate. "We believe it's critical to let kids take risks and encourage their curiosity. Ultimately, we need to build confident children, and risk taking and being free to be curious is how you get there."

However, any challenges you decide to incorporate into your playgrounds should be impeccably maintained so there's no chance that negligence or faulty equipment could be to blame for an incident, and using experienced professionals as you design and outfit your space is another way to be sure you're meeting safety codes. When in doubt, bring in an independent safety evaluator as well. Signs that indicate how elements should be enjoyed and for what ages they're meant will also help ensure your inspiring play area is used in a responsible and developmentally appropriate way.