Feature Article - July 2016
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Play On!

Evolving Trends & Innovations in Playground Design

By Dave Ramont


Going Natural

Nature and nature-play are also figuring more prominently into playground planning. The benefits of connecting kids to nature have been well documented in numerous studies over the past decade. Research shows that children's social, psychological, academic and physical health is positively affected when they have frequent contact with nature.

Norquist said he's seen a substantial increase in nature-based theming, but that the point is not just to make a piece of equipment that looks like a tree, but rather to build a space for play that exists in nature and incorporates real trees. "Nature helps children expand their imaginations, and the nature-play theme leaves the opportunity wide open for a tree to become a make-believe rocket ship."

These spaces are carefully designed, incorporating natural and native species and materials. "We often try to combine the natural setting with elements of a built environment like swings and slides," Norquist added. "Some even incorporate elements like butterfly gardens and greenhouses."

Spencer agrees with the importance of mixing elements of nature with the play experience. Her company has partnered with groups like the Children and Nature Network to promote nature and play. They've also sponsored extensive research on the subject with the Natural Learning Initiative at NC State University. And studies show that settings that combine the natural environment with the built one get the highest use from people.

"There's no reason why a playground cannot be surrounded by elements of nature that enhance the play experience with sight, sound and beauty. Trees provide shade, loose parts, like pinecones, to play with, and attract birds, whose sounds are a calming complement to the environment," Spencer said. She also cited studies showing that higher levels of play are supported by play spaces where nature and equipment were integrated.

These days, childhood obesity rates and increasingly sedentary lifestyles are a big concern. And with kids busier than ever—and spending much of their free time glued to electronic devices—it's crucial to encourage them to get outdoors. Spencer wonders, "If our children don't love and appreciate nature, then who will protect it when they are the adult decision-makers of the world?"

Starting in the late 1800s, the 1,600-acre Peck Farm in Geneva, Ill., housed 2,000 Merino sheep. It's since been subdivided, but the park district retains some of the land for athletic fields, bike paths, prairie restoration and a park. Within the park—in a pine grove—sits the Hawks Hollow Nature Playground. Upon entering, two things stick out on the Playground Rules sign: Turn Off Electronics and Be Loud!

The two-story rustic wooden play apparatus resembles a fort—featuring ramps, swinging bridges, ropes and climbing nets, lookouts with fixed telescopes and slides. It has interactive features like pulleys and a gutter-like contraption for rolling pinecones down. It's surrounded by log benches, a maze, musical instruments, balance beams, and signs which show and discuss the birds, insects and plants that abound. There's a waterfall, stream and bridges, and kids are encouraged to use the mud canvas—a wall they can draw on with mud. There are small hideouts made of sticks and branches, and a giant bird's nest kids can go in. Nearby sits a pavilion and a fire pit with stone seating. The original five-story silo is open for kids to explore, and each level has a different painting depicting a historic period on the farm. Down a path is an observation deck with fixed binoculars overlooking a pond and marsh, where kids can search for birds, reptiles or pirates. The original farmhouse now houses a museum and gift shop, and there's a butterfly house nearby.

Building Inclusiveness

It is said that "play is the work of childhood," and most would agree that it's an essential tool in a child's healthy development. Playgrounds are a place where kids get exercise and have fun, yes, but they also build social relationships and develop physical and cognitive skills. But for people of varying abilities or with special needs, not all playgrounds are welcoming.

An accessible playground is designed to meet the minimum requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But ADA compliance simply means that someone in a wheelchair can enter a playground, but not necessarily use any of the play equipment. And, out of the population who has a disability, only 10 percent use a wheelchair. Ninety percent have cognitive issues such as autism, sensory disorders, visual and hearing impairments, etc. And since many parents and caretakers also have disabilities, more inclusive play spaces would benefit them as well.

Fortunately, these issues are receiving more attention than ever. More all-inclusive playgrounds are being built each year, inspiring designers and manufacturers to consider things in a different light. Laris believes that being inclusive is no longer about mobility devices, but about bringing people of all abilities together. "We strive to include all types of children within the same play space—not by making special, different things for various users, but rather by designing something that can be used in a multitude of ways," he said.

Megan Damcevski, associate product manager at a Huntersville, N.C.-based playground equipment manufacturer, said that inclusive designs are on the rise as more people recognize the value of play and the benefits for children to play alongside their peers. "Play can provide an appropriate outlet for children struggling to express themselves, while helping them to navigate their world in a fun way," she said.

Spencer noted that access, cozy spaces, sensory input and use of color are some of the inclusive features to strive for, and she's happy to see that companies are beginning to address the aspect of cognitive issues. But she also pointed out that a truly great play space doesn't call out what it has for this disability or that disability, it simply serves everyone intuitively, and all people that use the space understand how to play there. "Looking at the whole picture is a necessity," she said. "Inclusion goes far beyond a marketing campaign—it's a philosophy that must be embraced on all levels to work in the greatest way possible."

The San Jose Rotary PlayGarden in San Jose, Calif., is a playground created for children of all abilities. The idea of providing multiples of the same experiences was the guiding force behind the design. A wheelchair-accessible earthen overlook allows kids to become familiar with the environment and feel less inhibited upon entering. There are retreat areas for those who get over-stimulated. All surfaces leading to all equipment—which is spread out—are accessible. Other amenities include kinetic and textural elements providing sensory play; raised and ground-level sand and water tables accessible with transfer-down platforms; a wheelchair-friendly merry-go-round; additional handholds on all equipment; slides of varying heights and sizes, including a double-wide; and several types of swings for all abilities, including an ADA chair and a disc pod for multiple users. The sliding hill has stair access with handrails, stone climbing access and a pathway that is wheelchair-accessible from two directions, with a transfer platform provided at the top. Features like these allow all children to play as peers.