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

Maintenance is another particular challenge for Lookout Cove, but one they've come to embrace. "Basically we have a living playground," Cutts said. The landscape is a big part of the play area, and all the pieces are wood as well. "Anything natural returns to nature, so embracing the cycle is requirement No. 1. It's a wonderful challenge, and it's never complete. Things are changed into other things." Even now they are preparing to reinvent and reinstall their very popular "Willow" sculpture, which includes actual living willow, some of which has now taken root. The same artist will work with the space again, but it won't be the same piece. That's part of the cycle.

Not every playground is part of a museum, but Cutts is convinced other playgrounds could embrace some more creative elements. In some cases such an effort might "become a landscape project, not so much a playground. Think about materials and how they'll be used as loose parts," she suggested. Providing programming within a play space is another way to engage kids' imaginations and keep them coming back. Lookout Cove has an Outdoor Learning Lab with programs on California native plants, local bird life, and mud and water play. "We just use it as a launch point for talking about the natural world," she said.

There's also an upper and lower portion of Lookout Cove, "and upper Lookout Cove is hard to find," she said. Many visitors come as often as two or three times a week, but it can take some time to discover the second area. Oh, but it's worth it. "It's very exciting when they do get there," Cutts said.

Fitness Playground         

The Parks & Recreation department in West University Place, Texas, is fortunate to have the nonprofit group Friends of West University Place Parks as a partner in their efforts for the community. In 2008 they developed a 10-year park and playground redevelopment plan, and since then they've been redoing a park or playground each year.

The city and the Friends purchased a five-acre former YMCA property, and in April 2010 they opened a huge fitness and recreation facility, complete with a natatorium, "but what we needed to complement those was a playground," said Parks & Recreation Director Tim O'Connor. Given the existing layout of the property, the best spot they could find was a 300-foot-by-100-foot space between the main building and the athletic field.

Because the playground is part of the fitness center complex, they chose a fitness theme to encourage those on the playground to exercise right along with the adults in the building. "Some of our play features are more challenging than traditional play features," explained Parks & Recreation Administrative Manager Susan White. The playground features a climbing wall, as well as assorted rope ladders and webs to climb. In addition, because the playground is adjacent to the ball field, there's a custom playhouse in the younger children's area that's designed like a concession stand.

Because they're in south Texas, near Houston, providing shade was "paramount," O'Connor said. So they placed the entire 3,000 square feet under a canopy. The respite from the blazing sun this creates no doubt encourages visitors of all ages and sizes to stay and play a little longer—or choose this as their destination in the first place. The park district selected an artificial turf surface, which they've found to be delightfully low maintenance, as well as keeping with the fitness and athletics theme, and they included extra padding as needed to meet NPSI standards for fall zones.

O'Connor said meeting safety and spacing requirements with the equipment was a bit of a challenge in this rectangular space. "Most of our playgrounds are free-form," he explained. They relied on the experience and expertise of their equipment provider to come up with creative solutions. "Get with a good manufacturer and installer who has a history to guide you past the traps that are so easy to fall in if you're relying on your own limited experience," he suggested.

O'Connor also believes good customer service to be essential. "You don't want someone who walks away once the install is done. There are lots of good [manufacturers] out there. Just be sure to pick one that will stay with you."