Feature Article - July 2016
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Play On!

Evolving Trends & Innovations in Playground Design

By Dave Ramont

Making Music

Another trend gaining traction is installing outdoor musical instruments in playgrounds. And while music plays an important role in all kid's lives, it's even more profound for people with autism and cognitive issues. Scientists say that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. Music can provide an effective way to stimulate speech development, aid in cognitive and motor development, and be a means to communicate or connect with people. It helps express feelings, and tap into memories and emotions.

There are many types of outdoor instruments available in varying sizes, timbres and tones. Common examples include chimes, marimbas, xylophones, bells and various percussion instruments. Many of these are tuned so that there are no wrong notes—anyone can pick out their own melody instantly.

The Magical Bridge inclusive playground in Palo Alto, Calif., has a 24-string laser harp, created by artist Jen Lewin. When a user breaks one of the laser beams, the harp creates a sound based on how quickly the person was moving and on the height of their hand or wheelchair. Many different sounds can be programmed into the harp.

Taking Risks

In recent years, many have argued that children are becoming too overprotected. And now, new analysis of existing research finds that kids who engage in thrilling, risky activities may be healthier—both physically and psychologically. Studies from the University of British Columbia determined that risky outdoor play is not only good for children's health, but also encourages creativity, social skills, confidence and resilience. Professionals believe that kids should be given the space to explore dangerous situations such as climbing and exploring alone in order to gain an awareness of danger and manage risks. If kids are only offered safe situations, they might not learn how to manage risk and promote safety. With this in mind, adventure play—also called free play, rough and tumble play, risky play, and self-directed play—has become a hot topic.

The community of Delta, British Columbia, wanted to update its Annieville Playground with riskier equipment after a public health expert told the council that kids who play safe when they're young show more signs of depression and anxiety later in life. So, they're looking at neighboring Richmond, which recently updated its Terra Nova Adventure Play Environment with a 35-foot tall treehouse, a steep, twisting slide and 110-foot-long zip lines.

Designers and manufacturers seem to agree with the benefits of risky play, but are concerned foremost with keeping their playgrounds safe. Laris believes that we've bubble-wrapped our children, and that kids need to test themselves in small challenges so that they learn with their own bodies and experiences what they can manage and what's too risky. "Of course, all hazards should be removed from any play environment," he said. "But within that space, challenge should be provided that meets a child's developmental stage and helps them to grow to the next level."

Kit Steven, sales rep for a Monett, Mo.-based commercial play equipment manufacturer, pointed out that there's a difference between actual risk and perceived risk, and that we should push the envelope with the perception of risk while still keeping it safe. "This may look like a net bridge that spans eight feet between two structures and allows kids to feel as though they may or may not make it across," he said. "The reality is that they're safe, but the perception is that they're floating over the ground on a mesh-style bridge that's open to the elements. Will they cross the rickety bridge or not?"

The Berkeley Adventure Playground in Berkeley, Calif., is run by the city's Parks and Rec Department and staffed by well-trained adults, but kids are encouraged to design and build structures on their own. The park has sheds, a zip line and fort-building competitions. Kids can hammer, saw and paint. There's climbing, sliding, swinging and jumping on kid-built forts, boats and towers.

Kids get down and dirty at the Ithaca Children's Garden in Ithaca, N.Y., where nature-play meets adventure playground. Some of the many features include the tadpole-filled Rice Paddy Pond, the solar-powered Kids Kitchen, the Wildflower Meadow, and wheelchair-accessible raised garden beds containing vegetables, herbs, flowers and dwarf fruit trees. There are two types of honeybee hives, and Cluckingham Palace- a moveable chicken coop, which benefits the gardens. But the crown jewel is the Hands-On-Nature Anarchy Zone, where kids are encouraged to play with water, sand and clay. They can climb on logs and boulders, and build forts with straw bales, stumps and cardboard.