Supplement Feature - April 2017
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A World of Play

Trends in Playground Planning & Design

By Joe Bush

Todd Newman has a problem in common with many parks and rec managers, and perhaps the nation's infrastructure supervisors, in general: equipment and structures badly in need of an update.

"They're starting to show their age in how they operate mechanically and how well they stay put together," said Newman, parks director for the town of Chanute, Kan. "We're doing a lot of maintenance on them yearly."

And if age weren't an issue, said Newman, lack of excitement sure is.

"I would drive through the parks, and only one out of the seven parks we have is really being used," said Newman. "They're bored with the equipment and design of the old ones. Now we have the same problem because all they want to use is the new one."

The "new one" is a sensory playground that replaces a rock-climbing-themed park that Newman said was "literally rocks painted colors" and was about 40 years old. When he took the job three years ago, Newman set out to provide a new playground, and once he saw inclusive playgrounds at an event held by the Kansas Recreation and Park Association, he knew what type to build.

Inclusive playgrounds are one of the latest trends in playground concepts for parks and recreation departments nationwide, and Newman had no trouble selling his idea to the parks board. He then got the support of an autism group.

"They helped out with fundraising and the design stages of equipment to help make sure all the equipment was right and would get used," Newman said. "I didn't want children standing around admiring the equipment if they couldn't use it. There's nothing worse than seeing a parent or guardian bring a kid to a playground, and they have to sit on a bench because a limitation keeps them from using it. We wanted to make sure that didn't happen. The community needed a playground they could be proud of."

The city chose a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that advances play through research, education and partnership, infusing this learning into a family of brands, including play equipment, motivated by the company's research around designing for inclusive play, as well as the chance to be a "National Demonstration Site." Newman said there was a budget of $350,000 from start to finish, including the playground, parking lots and a new restroom.

"I felt like that budget got us to where we needed to be to give the community the best playground possible," Newman said. "We made our budget around the playground rather than setting a budget first. I wanted to make sure we did this right since it had been so long since the community had a new playground."

Michele Chandler, director of marketing for the Chattanooga-based company, said the evolution of materials in playground equipment has boosted inclusive play areas. The introduction of a polyurethane foam material, coated with a durable, weather-resistant polyurea skin creates unique textures, she said.

"These textures, interesting shapes and stimulating colors provide a variety of sensations to the user, especially important for children with sensory and social/emotional disabilities," Chandler said. One of the company's brands recently launched a new product line that brings "… innovative, inclusive playground designs to communities," she added. "These products introduce new types of materials to the play space, such as new shapes, sounds and textures that encourage a child to use all five of their senses as they engage in play."

Electronic innovation helps as well, Chandler said. For example, one of the new products features a ground-level platform that creates piano or drum sounds when pressure is applied. Another includes electronic sensors that are installed on the walls of an inclusive climber, allowing users to activate sounds by either touching the sensor or plugging in an adaptive switch to activate a response from the sensor.

"Adaptive switch technology allows users with limited fine motor skills the ability to independently activate our sensors," Chandler said. "This technology has never before been adapted for a playground environment."

There has been a rise in requests for inclusive playgrounds, Chandler said. Driving the increase is higher awareness of the needs of all users of public parks, schools and communities.

"Moving beyond just accessibility, or physical access, is especially important, but also focusing on user experience is more important than ever," Chandler said. "We have focused the design of our play environments to support the needs of the whole child. Creativity and innovation are paramount in ensuring that the play environment is universally designed and developmentally appropriate to the greatest extent possible. This requires the engagement of important stakeholders in the planning and execution of the play space."