Feature Article - July 2012
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Maintenance & Operations: Playgrounds

Playgrounds and Sense of Place

By Tammy York


Sense of Place

In addition to using smaller playground venues that are modeled with nature-based and cityscape themes, playgrounds can also incorporate icons of the community. Each city is viewed by the residents in a certain way. Chicago is The Windy City, New York is The City that Never Sleeps, and New Orleans is The Big Easy.

An example of what you can do to benefit your parks system has been completed in Atlanta. This program created partnerships between public agencies and private entities as well as recreation and conservation groups and the community to provide a unique playground that provided universal access as well as a unique sense of place.

If you know anyone from Atlanta, you most likely have heard them refer to the city as the ATL. It is the identifier and the sense of place that pulls the community together. It is what kids identify with and can establish their sense of place. In Georgia, Atlanta is known as the ATL.

The initials are everywhere and Atlantians refer to their city as the ATL. This simple yet powerful sense of place played an important role in the development of a playground in downtown Atlanta. Playable10 in conjunction with Atlanta Taskforce on Play (ATOP) playground design competition brought a variety of creative talent into designing the playground and the winning playground design incorporated the favorites of playgrounds along with the valued sense of place.

The result is a playground structure developed around the iconic ATL. " I couldn't believe the response we got from the children," said Cynthia Gentry, founding director, ATOP. "We showed the children several designs for playgrounds from all over the world; when they saw that they leaped up and said the ATL! That's us!"

The ATL design playground made the playground a "place" in the children's world and community, and immediately gave the children and the community a sense of ownership. The ATL playground is located in Woodruff Park in the highly visible and well-traveled heart of the downtown area.

Nature-Based Playgrounds

To create a one-of-a-kind place with characteristics that make it a destination with opportunities for seamless play, playgrounds can incorporate the human and natural history of a region.

"It really gives the children that historical connection to the place that they are in and helps them to understand that environment in a much greater fashion," said Randy Watermiller, IPEMA president. "In Minnesota there is a playground themed around the Big Woods, which was a forest that was in existence in this part of the country."

"If we help children develop an appreciation of nature at a young age, they will carry that value with them, which is good for our land," said Thomas Norquist, IPEMA secretary. "It is important for children to have an appreciation for the outdoors and all the natural places they can go and play and all the wonders that come with that."

In Chandler, Ariz., a playground called Playtopia occupies a section of the city's Tumbleweed Park and includes several play zones with themes based on Chandler's long agricultural heritage. The playground also incorporates the history of dinosaur bone discoveries of the past with the children having the ability to dig for dinosaur bones today.

These playgrounds help not only bring a sense of place to a child's world, but the playgrounds also teach and serve as an area for children to develop social, physical and cognitive skills. Playgrounds are incorporating the nature discovery play experience whether through programming, facilitator or spontaneous play. Nature-themed playgrounds bring together a combination of manufactured and natural elements while also incorporating the topography, native flora and fauna to the playground design. Pocket playgrounds also are typically designed in this manner.