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

The Latest Trends in Playground Design

By Chris Gelbach

More Opportunities for Development & Choice

In addition to natural elements that can provide for more imaginative play, manufacturers are also trying to incorporate more choice into how children use playground structures. For instance, Michael Laris, director of product development for a Lewisburg, Penn., playground manufacturer, noted that this can be done by tweaking classic designs like the overhead monkey bars to give kids the opportunity to choose their own path and get on and off at different points of the structure. Features like a crow's nest can provide additional ways for kids who may be less fit to engage with and stay on the structure.

Providing options and activities that are changeable and that kids can improve at is particularly important for school playground structures that kids will use day after day. "Everybody I know mastered a slide when they were 4 years old. So what's really left to master?" Laris said. "Rope structures have grown to be popular at school because a lot of kids can get on them and they move as you affect each other's movement. Things that spin are hugely popular with kids because you can get better at it."

For similar reasons, Reese is also seeing a resurgence of rope-based elements. "There's just a better understanding by the playground developers as to what kids find exciting, and I think anything that moves, anything that's flexible, increases the challenge," Reese said. "If it moves, it's fun."

Likewise, manufacturers are finding that zip lines are reliably appealing in a variety of playground environments. "Playground zip lines are popular, and in the communities where we have installed them, it's not uncommon to see people lining up to use them," Spencer said.

As kids spend more time at home playing video games, Laris also believes that playgrounds are growing increasingly important as a way to foster real connectedness and social interaction. "We need to make sure they're still getting real eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand connectedness," he said. "So we talk a lot about how to create things that bring children together in the here and now. We very specifically try to design things that move kids together." In this respect, he sees playgrounds moving away from large, sprawling ramble platforms that lack a center point and toward designs that foster more interactivity.

Designs for All Generations

One of the biggest trends that manufacturers are seeing and implementing in their playground products is designs that are inclusive and offer multigenerational appeal. "A behavioral study was done monitoring people that use these large ramped playground systems, and found the No. 1 wheeled device to be guardians with strollers," Norquist said. "So the parents and younger kids are out there on top of these play environments while all the siblings are playing. But they're actually on the equipment."

While some urban areas are increasing construction of pocket parks in an attempt to give every child access to play, the growing protectiveness of American parents is also causing many areas to focus on the construction of destination playgrounds that are typically attended by whole families. These, in turn, are further fueling the multigenerational trend. "The kids aren't there at the park by themselves as much," Reese said. "They usually have a parent close by, and you're seeing more opportunities for the parent to engage in play with the child."

According to McConkey, more inclusive structures featuring ramps as opposed to just ladders and steps offer the added benefit of being more comforting to grandparents. They will frequently take the grandkids out for a day at the park—but may not be able to clamber up to rescue a kid perched high on a platform structure.

McConkey also sees other features that explore music or multisensory discovery activities as growing in prominence as another way to enhance multigenerational appeal. "They could include things like kaleidoscopes or seek-and-find games and activities, talk tubes or musical activities," McConkey said. "What those do is they become iconic to the playground and draw in people of different ages. There's a curiosity factor, so it can be new and novel over time."

Another approach that continues to gain momentum is the use of more linear play concepts that give kids an opportunity to explore different play areas and adults the opportunity to walk and get some exercise along the way, as opposed to just sitting on a bench.

While the use of adult fitness equipment near play areas is being seen with more regularity, it also presents some potential difficulties. Reese feels that when placed too closely to playgrounds, they can be a distraction to parents who may use them when they should be supervising their children. "The children also have a difficult time understanding the difference between that area and the playground and want to play on that, too, and it's really not designed for them from an anthropometric viewpoint," Reese said.

Instead of segregating adults from kids in this manner, many manufacturers are finding ways to bring adults and kids together through easy-on, easy-off designs. "I'd much rather make things more open-ended and accessible and approachable so that the adults aren't focused on their fitness or their iPhone while the kids are playing, but there's some interaction," Laris said.

In some cases, this is being done through equipment that is explicitly designed for adults and children to use together. Norquist cited his company's recent introduction of a swing that allows a child and an adult to swing together while facing each other as one example. In a play environment that is favoring destination parks, coming up with attractions that will motivate all ages to go to the park is increasingly important. "You've got to have a meaningful experience not just for the child, but for the parent, as well. And that will drive people into your parks," Norquist said.