Feature Article - July 2012
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Maintenance & Operations: Playgrounds

Playgrounds and Sense of Place

By Tammy York


The American Society of Civil Engineers offers the following solutions to overcome problems with budget deficits:

  • Create partnerships between public agencies and private recreation and conservation groups to provide benefits to the public at a lower cost.
  • Adopt regional planning approaches that recognize recreation use and demand trends to maximize the use of limited funds for park acquisition and maintenance. Care must be taken to avoid overextending limited operation and maintenance budgets by creating too many new properties.
  • Establish state and local dedicated funding sources for parks and recreation facilities to ensure consistent future funding.
  • Continue to increase federal leadership through programs like the Centennial Initiative and the Land and Water Conservation Fund to meet growing population demands for outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • Establish a federal commission to study ways to improve access to recreation in the United States. A bipartisan commission could assess use and demand of outdoor recreational facilities and better track the spending and effectiveness of federal investments in parks and recreation facilities.

Keeping Up With Change

The International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), provides third-party product certification services for U.S. and Canadian public play equipment and public play surfacing materials in the United States and manages the "Voice of Play" Web site to educate the general public, parents, teachers and organizations such as PTA, PTO and community groups about the various benefits of play including how playgrounds and playing help reduce childhood obesity and have many different social, cognitive and emotional benefits.

Even with strong support, playgrounds can unfortunately become cookie cutter-ish and lack a sense of place as a result. The colors might range from day-glo rainbow sherbet to modern day camo, and features common to any playground can be found, such as a slide, monkey bars and swings. One playground looks just like the next, and it is difficult to tell the difference between them, especially for the children playing on the playground.

A growing trend in playground design is to divide the playground into smaller pocket playgrounds. The smaller playgrounds are typically theme-based and have a much smaller footprint than a "traditional" playground. The advantages of pocket playgrounds such as the "Pathways to Play" initiative are that children's senses are engaged more in these small environments, and their cardiovascular health is improved simply for the fact that they have to follow a trail to get from one pocket to the next.

Another side benefit of pocket playgrounds versus the sprawling playground set is that it is easier for parents to be engaged as well, rather than sitting on the sidelines. Theming with pocket playgrounds can be anything from enormous butterflies to trees to cityscapes. This allows for an endless list of ways to incorporate the sense of place and uniqueness into the playground setting.

For example, a butterfly pocket playground might tie a species of butterfly in with the specific area where the children are playing, and why that type of butterfly would live there. The morphology and biology of the butterfly from egg to larvae to chrysalis to butterfly are all there for the children to explore while they are also literally climbing, sliding and jumping on the butterfly.

Not only do these play pockets offer an opportunity for children to learn, explore, engage and appreciate nature, but they also help children develop a sense of place.