Feature Article - November 2011
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Finding the Way to Fun

Big Ideas to Help Create Your Superior Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Fish Creek      

Now part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Grand Prairie, Texas, was first settled in the mid-1800s, and those who live there are proud of its history. Sometime in 2010, the Parks and Recreation Department in Grand Prairie had a brainstorm.

"Our intent was to develop a historic or period-themed playground," said Steven Plumer, RLA, ASLA, senior parks project manager. "We wanted Grand Prairie specific." Although it was a challenge—nine months in planning alone—they reached their goal. "Kids can go back in time and play in an 1880s town," said Plumer of the Fish Creek Playground. "It allows their imaginations to run wild."

The community loves this play area, perhaps because they had so much input in creating it. To begin the project, students at South Grand Prairie High School researched what life in their town would have been like in the 1880s. They divided into groups to learn about native trees and plants, wildlife in the region, buildings of the time period, and possessions settlers might have brought with them from the East. The students presented their findings, via PowerPoint, to the park district, and the park district then began consulting with a custom playground design firm and their plan, which had to meet strict budget, size and safety guidelines, took 2-D and then 3-D shape.

Fish Creek Forest Preserve had been enjoyed as a nature and hiking area already, but adjacent residents were pleased to see a playground going in. As the infrastructure was installed (sidewalks, drainage, mowstrip), they often wandered over to inquire about how things were going, Plumer reported. Then on May 14, 2011, the neighbors really got involved when Fish Creek Playground came to life during a community build. Two hundred volunteers spent the day sweating and assembling the playground's custom frontier-style features, which include a treehouse, clubhouse, schoolhouse, campfire and jail.

Plumer has no doubt that the extra time and expense required for this unique playground were worth it, because the playground now brings "attention and excitement to our park system," he said. Visitors flock to explore this one-of-a-kind play space, which gives Grand Prairie the opportunity to "introduce users to our park system and show them [all] the NRPA Gold Medal-winning parks we have in the city of Grand Prairie."

Lookout Cove at the Bay Area Discovery Museum         

The Bay Area Discovery Museum is the only children's museum located within a National Park, and they have an expansive outdoor space for kids to explore. "Opening the natural world to young kids is the whole point," said Cutts, the museum's director of exhibitions. "It's safe and closed, and a child can run free. That's the heart of the museum: an outdoor destination."

Since it opened in 2004, the 2.5-acre Lookout Cove outdoor play area has been one of the museum's more popular parts. The museum's theme is "My Place at the Bay," and every element of Lookout Cove has an authentic connection to the Bay Area, Cutts explained. They have a mini Golden Gate bridge, which remains unfinished so visiting children can try their hand at construction, an old Monterey Bay fishing boat to explore, a shipwreck modeled on an actual shipwreck off the California coast, mini tide pools filled with bronze replicas of the animals you might find there, and a whole collection of large-scale, nature-based artworks.

"We're trying to trigger curiosity," Cutts explained. The art pieces encourage children to explore and tell stories via the natural world, and the icons from the surrounding area help children begin to understand and make sense of the part of the world that's their home. "For their own good, and for the future of our nation, our children need a heightened curiosity, the ability to take risks and try new things, and the joy of discovery and creativity," Museum Executive Director Richard Winefield writes in an essay titled "The Growing Danger of a U.S.-Creativity Gap." (See sidebar for the museum's suggestions on five elements of child-centered, creative play—a good goal for any playground.)

Cutts confessed that the development and installation of Lookout Cove was a long and very "messy" process that involved a wildly blown budget and a lot of custom design. In the end they were saved by a local fabricator who took the designs and created the pieces at a dramatically reduced rate. Because these were not purchased playground equipment pieces, or even custom pieces created by a traditional playground manufacturer, the museum hired an independent safety consultant to make sure everything met the proper standards.