Guest Column - November 2013
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Splash Play

Designing for Discovery
Effective Aquatic Play Design

By Lisa Neilson

Fun, engaging aquatic play spaces build community—they bring families together, encourage play between children of all ages and abilities, and help to create physically and emotionally healthy children. But what is the best way to ensure that the facility you're designing achieves these goals?

The concept of designing for discovery starts with considering how children learn and play as they develop physically and mentally, how they interact with their environment and the people around them. This knowledge can then be used during the design stage, informing decisions from feature selection to configuration.

Core Elements of Development

The core elements of positive development act as a foundation for designing for discovery. In supporting development through play, facility design should strive to be:

  • Relational: The play environment should be safe for the intended age group to explore and play.
  • Relevant: Play features should be developmentally matched to children's levels of physical and mental development. The more closely matched, the more engaged children will be.
  • Repetitive: Children, especially younger ones, thrive with repetition and recognizable patterns in their environment.
  • Rewarding: The play experience should be rewarding.
  • Respectful: Play environments should be respectful with regard to the children playing, their families and the culture of the community.

Children get the most out of their play experience in aquatic facilities where these elements exist. Instead of simply being entertained, they discover and learn as they play.

Designing for Discovery

Smart design can have an enormous impact on the success of a facility—you can increase safety and maximize play value through a thoughtful design. There are three steps to designing for discovery:

  1. Define separate play zones for toddlers, children and youth. Segregation of age groups in separate zones is necessary for the enjoyment of younger children, who may be intimidated by youths.
  2. Consider the play habits of each zone when choosing features. Children will be automatically drawn to the zone that best matches their play habits. Choose play features that stimulate development at each age level, and evoke thoughtful play. Keep in mind the role of parents or caregivers, giving them easy lines of sight to the children and dry sitting areas.
  3. Space play features with sufficient room to encourage maximum fun. This is important not only for safety and play value, but also to ensure that the play environment is as accessible as possible for all levels of abilities.

Age-Specific Play Habits

Beyond separating different ages, defining play zones also allows you to cater to the play habits of toddlers, children and youth.

In the toddler zone, little ones should feel safe playing with water elements designed to their size and abilities. With a recommended age range of 6 months to 4 years, discovery play in this zone focuses on motor skills development, sensory stimulation and parallel play for the younger ones.

The child zone is oriented around family fun, and should be an exciting area for everyone, though it is geared toward ages 5 to 8. Discovery play in this zone includes sensory stimulation, action-reaction interactions and collaboration.

The youth zone includes big sprays and even bigger splashes for the older kids looking for more stimulation. Designed for ages 9 and up, the element of surprise is key for this zone, where the discovery play elements relate to action-reaction interactions and collaboration.

Feature Selection

The four types of discovery play—motor skills development, sensory stimulation, action-reaction interactions and collaboration—are cultivated through the appropriate feature selection and combinations within each play zone.

Motor Skills Development: Motor skills development occurs in a play environment that encourages toddlers to develop coordination and test their abilities. Low-to-the-ground play features that little ones can manipulate, predictable water patterns and multiple textures all help to develop motor skills.

Sensory Stimulation: Engaging children's senses of touch, sight and sound evokes imaginative play, leading to emotional and social growth. Touch is stimulated with features that children reach and connect with water texture and movement. The sounds of splashing and flowing water can be supplemented with features that are noise-interactive, making sounds from musical notes to animal calls. Visual effects such as theming, water patterns, reflections, translucent effects and light refraction create even more interest for all ages.

Make sure to consider the level of sensory stimulation for the intended age group—toddlers may be overwhelmed in a play area that stimulates all the senses at once, whereas this may be effective for older children.

Action-Reaction Interactions: Cause-and-effect learning environments help children develop intention and discover causal relationships. Using activators in each major zone puts control of the park in the hands of the children and, coupled with park sequencing, keeps them guessing as to which features will be activated and in what order. Features that allow children to redirect or control the flow of water also help them explore action-reaction interactions.

Collaboration: Collaborative play gives children confidence and promotes teamwork, which is an essential part of social development. Multi-user play features, particularly those that encourage children to work together to achieve a specific result, are conducive to collaborative play. Some examples are spray cannons or team ground sprays, which erupt in a larger and larger burst of water as kids work together to cover some of the nozzles.

Building Healthier Communities

Using this multi-faceted design process, you can create facilities that cater to the needs, interests and developmental stages of end users, which encourages more repeat visits and offers something for all members of the community, regardless of age or ability. The outcome? Facilities designed for success and longevity, and of course, discovery.

Since 2008, Lisa Neilson, director of customer support & communications for Waterplay Solutions Corp., has led the Marketing and Product Management teams at Waterplay. She has engaged with child development experts to understand how children learn and grow through healthy play environments and worked with the Waterplay team to incorporate this knowledge into the organization's product development and play space designs. For more information, visit