Feature Article - July 2012
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Maintenance & Operations: Playgrounds

Playgrounds and Sense of Place

By Tammy York

Universal Play

Besides a playground having a sense of place, it is also important that the playground be accessible and playable for everyone, regardless of their abilities. Universal playground design addresses usability, safety and health.

Designing for inclusion means figuring out a way to create an environment where anyone who wants to come to the playground can, and that the playground meets them at their developmental level. "If they can find experiences that are a just-right fit, such as climbing, swinging, or socially gathering, it addresses the opportunities of anyone who comes to that space to find something that is engaging and fun," McConkey said. Public gathering places that a wide range of people can enjoy become icons of the community, and the community develops a sense of pride regarding that place.

It is important that universal play is not a separate playground. "Bring all of that together so there is no separation in the playground. It entices a level of socialization so the children and caregivers aren't feeling disconnected," Watermiller said.

"For many years play has been the great equalizer. Universal design of destination playgrounds helps all members of society learn to play together at a very young age, and that will affect the way that they play together for the rest of their lives," Norquist said.

Design 101

When it is time to design your community's next playground, you could open the design field up to artists from around the world by hosting a contest with a cash prize. The contest parameters will need to be clearly defined. Do you want a sketch? Do you want an estimate? Do you want a specific element included in the design?

You also can get kids involved in selecting the elements they'd most like to see on the playground.

"Consider who the users are and the overall goals for the playground. What do they want to achieve? In some cases, you might be dealing with potential sensitive issues," Watermiller said. "You need to reach out into the community base and ask for input and ideas. Especially when some might want certain attributes, you must be sensitive to cultural issues."

When building your stakeholder group, bring in the city management, local parks, businesses, professional groups, hospitals, schools, as well as groups covering such topics as parenting, nature and history. By involving these groups at the beginning of your project, you will develop a stronger base of advocates to help with a variety of tasks, including planning and funding.

Odds are good that with several key stakeholders involved you will be able to deftly navigate any cultural issues, develop a playground with a strong sense of place, and have a playground that is the pride of the community that helped build it.