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

The Playscapes Perspective

Paige Johnson of Tulsa, Okla., became interested in playgrounds when she was given the task of creating one for her church. At the time she was frustrated by the exorbitant budget that seemed to be required and the limited options she could find. Years later, she's given quite a lot of time to exploring, studying and thinking about creativity, play and what sort of design makes a good playground. She shares her thoughts and ideas on Playscapes, a blog found at playgrounddesigns.blogspot.com.

The blog offers plenty of photos and inspiring ideas, but we also contacted Johnson herself for thoughts on how playgrounds can be better:

"If I could change just one thing about today's playgrounds, it would be to make them not flat!" she said. "Simply swelling the ground plane into some gentle hills and valleys would make any installation so much more interesting, even if the playset is standard issue. Done thoughtfully with carefully considered slopes, this is no more of a maintenance and mowing issue than a flat space. And you essentially get play equipment for free: The kids can roll down the hills or crouch behind them, and a valley is a perfect place for a sandpit. Sandpiles dumped in public parks for the benefit of street urchins are where playgrounds started, actually, and they are still one of the best playground components, providing hours of play within a child's own imagination. No playground is complete without one."

"If I could change two things, I would add natural elements to the playground along with the hills. Many playgrounds look like play deserts: bald equipment set in a sea of dry mulch—or more frequently now a sea of rubber safety surfacing. It's simple to add some areas of tall grasses with a path running through them for hiding. Or a tree. Consider a fruit tree so that kids can watch the fruit develop. A bench around the tree will allow a child to retreat from the activity while remaining in the play space; this is one of several neglected playground design concepts that can help combat bullying. Add some boulders (use local stone varieties!) that can be seats, or things to climb up or jump off or build on with sticks. If you must have some sort of border around the entire playground space to retain the surfacing, make it a track rather than just an edge so that it can be used for races."

"A great example is Kiwanis Park in Pittsboro, S.C., where Paul Horne added new natural elements, including huge sections of a felled oak tree, to an existing traditional playspace (pboparks.blogspot.com/2009/09/kiwanis-park-virtual-ribbon-cutting.html)," she said. "Paul has also held sculpture shows within the playground, an aspect of playground programming that I'd love to see utilized more often—especially since the best playgrounds are themselves very sculptural in character (see, for example, the Belleville park in Paris playgrounddesigns.blogspot.com/2010/02/playground-park-belleville-paris-base.html)."

"Certainly, thoughtful programming enhances the use of a playground space," she added. "Good programming can enhance the idea of the playground as a community site, not just a place for nannies and toddlers. But, a well-designed space will draw in users simply through the strength of its design."