Feature Article - November 2012
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Finding the Way to Play

Trends on the Playground

By Dawn Klingensmith

The sand play areas King designs are not the same as sandboxes. They may be 3 or 4 feet deep "so kids can dig to China," he said. He may install a hand-operated water pump nearby, which he says is "great upper body exercise for kids" and allows them to moisten the sand to build sandcastles, make mud pies or construct channels and dams.

He has also built brick labyrinths, dinosaurs made of braches, fossil digs, forts, caves, butterfly gardens and low-cost "spray grounds" consisting of grass and sprinklers.

Certain plants and shrubs, such as lilac bushes, form natural canopies for kids to play beneath while providing shade and a sense of privacy. "Kids love to be in small, confined spaces. They like the sense of security, the sense of enclosure," King said.

Whenever adults question the wisdom or value of natural playgrounds, King has them do a simple exercise: Think back to a Saturday morning in your childhood and write down your favorite outdoor play activities. List makers usually come up with things like rolling down hills, snowball fights, building forts in the woods, playing games like "statue," or just leaning against a tree, daydreaming.

"Very, very few adults in all our meetings and workshops have said 'my favorite outdoor play activity was sliding on the playground slide,' or 'playing on the monkey rings,' or 'going up and down on the see-saw.'" King reports on his web site. "The funny thing is that when we work in schools, we ask children the same question, and even though they have all this safe, expensive, manufactured equipment on their playground, their favorite play activities still have nothing to do with it. They like flying kites, or damming water, or bouncing the tennis ball against the wall, or playing tag or king of the hill using the big boulder in the middle of the playground, or throwing snowballs at a tree, or watching butterflies and ants, or rolling down the hill, or sitting on the stone wall with a friend, or making fairy houses."

Nevertheless, due in part to safety and liability concerns, naturalized playgrounds typically are an easier sell than natural playgrounds. "In certain climates in the U.S., you can't have a fallen log because in a few months you'll have chiggers and ticks in it," Christensen said. "And insurability issues come into play. If kids are playing on this log and the bark sloughs off and they fall and break their arm, the parents will be looking to sue someone."

Manufactured rocks and logs can meet engineering criteria for strength, longevity and safety, while complying with CPSC standards.

Christensen said one manufacturer combines the best of both worlds, using real boulders as bases for climbing structures with added polyurethane handles to make up for insufficient natural handholds and footholds.

Despite concerns, natural playgrounds continue to pick up despite the economy, and last year King's business grew by 400 percent, he said, adding that natural playgrounds are laid out to encourage running and movement.