Supplement Feature - April 2013
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Imagination at Play

Trends in Playground Design

By Wynn St. Clair


"The hope is to continue to work on Sibley Park to make it a regional draw ... to recapture its glory days," Mankato Director of Public Works Mark Knoff said when the plan was first announced.

That's exactly what the playground's designers aimed for as they worked to create a space that reflected the dynamic community park's rich history. Using a variety of materials, they created two barn-themed play structures, a chicken coop structure, pig pen, tractor climber, corn stalk climbers, and a wagon-themed seesaw, among other features. To grab the attention of passersby and visitors alike, they sculpted farm animals—chickens, coyotes, horses and pigs—using concrete and hand painted them for a simultaneously realistic and whimsical look.

The end result was so successful, the playground is now trumpeted as a tourist attraction by the Greater Mankato Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

The state of New York is hoping for similar success with its recently announced plans to renovate playgrounds at two state parks in the Albany area. The park improvements, which were announced in October, are being funded with $223,333 from the Governor's New York Works initiative.

Under the initiative, the state will build or create new playgrounds at two parks and install new playground equipment at two additional parks in the capital region. The plans embrace the latest trends in playground design, as the sites will be accessible to people with disabilities and have distinct areas for different age groups. Each playground will have its own unique themes reflecting characteristics of the park, as well, officials said. Playground improvements will be coupled with site improvements, including shade trees or canopies, seating, water fountains and trail/walkway connections to the rest of the park.

At John Boyd Thacher State Park in Albany County, there soon will be a new playground in an underutilized portion of the park picnic area. It will have a high adventure theme, featuring two 80-foot zip lines, cable climbers and climbing boulders. In nearby Saratoga County, the governor's office has earmarked money for a new nature-themed playground that includes play structures that resemble logs, mushrooms and trees.

The plan has won bipartisan support, as GOP lawmakers have praised the Democratic governor for the backing the initiative.

"Our state parks add to New York's quality of life for families, and this new nature-themed playground will give Capital Region families another reason to visit one of the true jewels of our area, Saratoga Spa State Park," said Assembly Man James Tedisco, a Republican who represents the Saratoga area. "I want to thank Gov. Cuomo and the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for building this playground in Saratoga that will give children and families a safe place to play, exercise and have fun."

Construction began in the off-season and the playgrounds are expected to be ready for use by spring. New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation currently plans to fix, modernize or create more than 50 playgrounds, particularly in those parks with high visitation by families. The New York Works initiative also is creating 20 new or improved playgrounds to further attract families to parks in the next year.

"It is important that children have a safe and engaging place to play, and these NY Works projects will give them just that in state parks across New York," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in announcing the initiative last year. "The numbers tell the story of more and more people visiting the parks, and I encourage everyone to visit these new and improved areas inside the state parks as well as the beauty that New York has to offer."

Parks, however, don't always need fancy equipment or thrilling structures to be entertaining. An increasing number of open spaces have been turned into natural playgrounds, which are designed to blend indigenous vegetation and features with creative landforms and fun diversions. They are intended to bring children back to nature, offering a wide range of open-ended play options that encourage creativity and spark imaginations.

Anyone who has climbed a tree, rolled down a hill or leapt into a pile of leaves has experienced natural play. Experts, however, worry those activities are becoming outdated in the 21st century, losing a popularity contest to video games and the Internet. In detailing the assortment of behavioral problems children unacquainted with the outdoors exhibit, author Richard Louv described the condition as "Nature Deficit Disorder" in his book Last Child in the Woods.

Natural playgrounds, or playscapes, are a suggested antidote for the disorder and technology's stronghold on children by encouraging kids to simply get outside and play. And the latest research seems to back this philosophy.