Supplement Feature - April 2018
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Get Moving, Get Playing!

Active Playgrounds for Kids on the Go

By Dave Ramont

Fitness circuit options are available as well, according to Lisiecki and Johnson, featuring equipment focusing on muscle building and toning with body weight exercises and a cardio workout that can be tailored to a variety of fitness levels. There are designs for age 5 to 12 and 13 and up, and the equipment can be placed in clusters or along a trail.

As with the obstacle courses, more parks are adding fitness equipment close to their play spaces. "It's a great way for adults to set the example for children, and a great way to maximize the usage of the park," Callison said. Offerings include sit-up stations, push-up stations and chin-up bars; chest, leg and arm presses; cardio walkers; plyo boxes, step trainers and balance beams. If space is precious, Callison said compact systems are available, for example, one that allows 10 people to perform up to 21 different exercises at the same time in as little as 450 square feet.

Lukas Steinke, CEO of a South Carolina-based play equipment company that specializes in rope-play equipment, said that rope structures are ideal for encouraging more physical play. "Rope is superior to other materials when creating more active and fitness-play, as its flexibility increases challenge and conditioning."

Rope structures and netscapes offer kids plenty of opportunity for crawling, swinging, balancing and climbing. "Equipment height helps motivate climbing—the higher, the better," Steinke said. Indeed, many structures reach beyond 20 feet tall, with a giant rope pyramid reaching nearly 30 feet. Yet, due to the geometry of the net, at no point is there a freefall risk greater than six feet.

The modular rope structures can be combined and have many add-ons available: hand-over-hand loop ropes and ladders; swinging cables; climbing ropes; spider webs and other climbing structures; ramps, transfer stations and slides; various bridges like the wobbly bridge, suspension bridge and jungle bridge. Their low ropes courses act as obstacle courses, with elements close to the ground; think slack lines and tight ropes. Adults sometimes use them for motor-skills training, or just for fun.

Steinke explained that well-engineered rope systems are very durable, and their oldest net climbers still in use were built in the late 1970s. Plus, they offer good accessibility. "Rope offers a new level of inclusivity; since in a net everything is interconnected, actions of one user (for example, jumping) affect all other users," Steinke said. "The sensation of interdependence include everybody, it's not limited to certain abilities."

Most of the play elements have a low access height, and are easy to reach from a wheelchair. A swinging net or special swing seats for disabled individuals can be used for swinging.

As far as striving to get those with special needs more active, too, Callison said it's always a consideration. "We encourage customers to include playground products that promote physical activity for every person, regardless of ability."

He said they consider how the space and the products therein will be accessible to the greatest extent possible, addressing the needs of the whole person, the whole community. "By doing so, we ensure the space provides physical, social, communicative, emotional, cognitive and sensory benefits for everyone."

Lisiecki and Johnson agree, saying manufacturers and designers need to focus on play for everyone, no matter age or ability. "Everyone needs exercise, and designing spaces where everyone can play together and gain the physical benefits of play has become more and more necessary."

They mentioned their inclusive spinner as an example, pointing out that kids gain cardiovascular exercise while pushing it, while other kids can ride in positions of varying difficulty on the spinner. "Kids that may use a mobility device can sit safely in specially designed seats that provide security, but also help them challenge their core strength, something that often needs development in children."

Another playground option that promotes exercise is nature or trail-based play. "We pioneered the idea of play trails," Callison said, "installing pockets of nature-themed play activities along a trail or greenway. They encourage families to reconnect with nature and with one another."

This includes crawl-through tunnels and tubes, balance beams, nets and tree climbers. They also worked with the Nature Learning Initiative at NC State to introduce the Nature Grounds program, a guide for bringing natural elements like trees, shrubs and other plantings into the manufactured play environment. "This provides a more calming environment and increases the diversity of play experiences and levels of physical activity."

Childhood and adult obesity are major concerns, and Callison pointed out that 10 percent of adults and 5 percent of children have Type II diabetes. But he added that these conditions, in large part, can be reversed or controlled through more physical activity.

"We have an opportunity to help communities live healthier lives. We can empower the next generation, those between the ages of 4 and 22, the so-called Generation Z. Playgrounds and recreation areas are the key to a healthy Gen Z!"