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

The Latest Trends in Playground Design

By Chris Gelbach

Theming Gets More Sophisticated

In creating playgrounds that are more novel and sophisticated, playground manufacturers are additionally seeing clients opt for more custom theming. Spencer noted that over the past year, her company has created play spaces that look like forts, pirate ships, historic buildings, trees, castles and whale migration sites.

In many instances, communities are opting for custom themes that reflect something unique about the local environment. "It's not just play activities as much as it's seamless play and learning at the same time," McConkey said. "So it could be an event of historical significance to that community, something that's iconic. Maybe they were a railroad town, so it's a railroad-themed play area." Or it could be a theme that includes statues of animals that are native to the area. Recent examples McConkey has worked on have included Southwestern desert-themed playgrounds and a Northwoods-themed playground with moose, porcupine and raccoon statues.

The more imaginatively themed parks are most often seen in destination parks or centrally located parks in a community. "In smaller settings, we sometimes see a couple of different pieces that might be themed, or an individual piece like a standalone tractor in a farm theme," McConkey said.

Manufacturers are additionally seeing the trend extend toward art you can play on. "You may have a manufacturer partnering with an artist or an artist partnering with someone who's a certified playground safety instructor in working on individual interesting pieces of playful art," Norquist said.

Through aesthetically pleasing sculptural elements, some of these types of structures give kids the ability to be creative and explore while still climbing and being active. "It's much more open-ended," said Laris of his company's play sculpture products. "You can meet, you can hang out, you can climb. For smaller kids, there are places to hide or pretend play … it's kind of explore as you will."

The artistic elements of playground design are additionally being enhanced through growing attention to things like casting shadows and the creative use of color in surfacing. "Our surfacing manufacturers at IPEMA are just doing a fantastic job of creating what I call a playful landscape," Norquist said. "That's a really cool trend where you're getting some play value out of what was there for safety reasons."

The use of color is diversifying beyond the cartoony tones of the past. Laris believes this might, in part, be reflective of an internationalization of playground designs. "We have tended to have slides for the smaller kids but then the same slides and colors for the big kids," Laris said. "I think maybe internationally there's a different look at childhood and a respect for the fact that these kids are beyond masses of purple and pink. They want something that's kind of cool like the other things that are in their life."

As McConkey sees more playgrounds adopt natural tones, he's also seeing them embrace nature-inspired colors that go beyond greens and browns. "We're seeing things like tangerine, limon, even colors that are paprika or peacock or grass or berry—options that reflect a really natural-looking color palette," McConkey said.

Places for All to Play

As playground designs increasingly cater to a multigenerational audience and become a place for the whole family to play and connect, manufacturers have responded with a diversification of structure types with more sophisticated designs that are suitable for a more prominent role in parks and other environments.

"Probably the most important thing is to not just put play off into the corner of the park," Laris said. "Playgrounds are a place of coming together. They're a social place where people meet. It's the old square of old days where people can actually talk to each other. Play is important as a glue to society. So, instead of isolating it, integrate it."