Feature Article - July 2015
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Natural, Thematic & Playable By All

The Latest Trends in Playground Design

By Chris Gelbach

As playgrounds look to attract and sustain the interest of screen-obsessed kids, they're differentiating today's designs from those of yesteryear with a focus on natural play, multigenerational appeal, custom theming, playable art and more elements that require decision-making and skill development. In the process, playground manufacturers are seeking to raise the bar in creating destination play spaces and providing experiences that encourage lasting engagement for both children and adults.

"We're finally getting to the maturity level of the industry to see designers and companies starting to push the boundaries to get beyond what some have labeled the dumbed-down playground," said Tom Norquist, senior vice president for a playground manufacturer bases in Fort Payne, Ala., and a board director for the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). "There's a trend toward pushing the boundaries in terms of design innovation and experience that I would say most of the manufacturers and professional consultants are heavily involved with right now."

As landscape architects are creating more diverse play spaces, they're also drawing inspiration—and products—from multiple sources. "A lot of them are not necessarily just using one manufacturer as their solution for a play environment, but mixing it up with products from several different companies and sometimes several different countries," Norquist said.

The Ongoing Evolution of Nature-Inspired Play

According to Norquist, one of the ways manufacturers are doing this is by shifting their focus away from the cartoony themes of the past in favor of more naturalistic designs. This often involves considering how to incorporate the existing landscape into the playground design. It could include figuring out if certain trees can be kept, or if there are existing rock formations that can be used as planting beds or low-level climbing structures.

Playground manufacturers are seeking to raise the bar in creating destination play spaces and providing experiences that encourage lasting engagement for both children and adults.

"With the larger destination parks, the landscape architects in their development are doing a better job of integrating the topography into the playground," said Lloyd Reese, an IPEMA board member and the director of engineering and development for a playground manufacturer based in Huntersville, N.C. "They're using different elevations to access a play structure, or using hillside slides. It's not just an old recycled tennis court that they put a playground on. They've done a great job of integrating nature and other elements into the play area."

According to John McConkey, market insights manager for a playground manufacturer based in Delano, Minn., this also includes the still-increasing use of manufactured elements that conform to playground safety standards and guidelines, but that emulate natural elements like fallen logs, along with the use of natural color palettes.

He's also seeing more playgrounds in environments that encourage real contact with natural materials. This includes playgrounds surrounded by trails through the woods, playgrounds surrounded by sand and water play areas, or areas for loose parts such as "tree cookies" or small branches that children can play with imaginatively. These types of areas are most common in educational environments such as botanical gardens, arboretums and zoos where educational supervisors are often present. Newly-introduced guidelines for creating nature play spaces from the National Wildlife Fund can help guide recreation managers in this area.

"When it comes to a more controlled environment, there's more opportunity for real natural materials and real nature elements," McConkey said. "Where there's less supervision like at a public park in a city or suburban neighborhoods, it's more nature-inspired as opposed to real nature." A controlled environment is also important for the use of elements like loose parts, which are otherwise vulnerable to theft.

Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of marketing and communications for a playground manufacturer based in Chattanooga, Tenn., also is seeing more natural elements being introduced to facilitate higher use and engagement than would be possible with just nature or equipment alone.

"Among many other things, nature can provide comfort, shade, loose parts for play and shelter for birds, which, along with the movement of leaves, provides sound elements to the play area," Spencer said. "Large wild grasses can create cool mazes for kids to play in."

Inspired in part by nature, more playground structures are additionally incorporating integrated shade. "There's so much more attention being placed on UV protection, and I think you're seeing a lot more of that in the base playgrounds," Reese said.