Feature Article - July 2018
Find a printable version here

Destination: Playgrounds

Modern Playgrounds Create Fun Family Outings

By Rick Dandes

There is a revolution going on in modern playground design and equipment. Simple swings and slides have evolved into today's sophisticated play equipment that ensures safety, accessibility and inclusivity. And the playground itself has been re-imagined, morphing into a community space and a family destination.

"We have been seeing the growth of larger, customized playgrounds over the past year," observed Greg Harrison, chief marketing officer for a major playground equipment manufacturer in Huntersville, N.C. As a trend, he continued, "People are looking to build destination playgrounds and really making it a centerpiece for their park, to draw people in from all around."

That's exactly what Chuck Stifter, director of parks and recreation, Maple Grove Parks and Recreation, Minn., learned through surveys and talking with area residents. "We asked people what they wanted in park facilities and recreational experiences, and it seems that in the age of social media people want a place that is a destination. A place where they can take pictures of themselves and their families having a great time. It's so much about having a unique experience. What's difficult about that, I think, is that you can't have that everywhere. It's a great challenge."

The experience begins with the evolution of the play environment. "We are seeing several new trends in outdoor recreational play environments that include providing more challenging play components and systems for children ages 5 to 12," said Michele Chandler, director of marketing, specialty play group, of a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based family of brands that combines educational programming with play and recreation products and services. Those play environments include "American Ninja Warrior"-inspired elements, as well as addressing the emerging new category of active playgrounds for adults, Chandler said. "Challenging playground designs that include unique climbing elements such as ropes, cables, nets and spinners, designed to mimic 'Spartan' type events, continue to be the most requested. The beauty of these designs is that they can also be enjoyed by adults, producing a multigenerational aspect to the play environment. We are also seeing different variations of zip lines and track rides that run both parallel and in circular paths, no doubt inspired by many high ropes courses found across the country."

We asked people what they wanted in park facilities and recreational experiences, and it seems that in the age of social media people want a place that is a destination.

In the swings arena, she said, parent and child swings continue to be a hot seller, allowing face-to-face eye contact between both users.

Agreeing with Chandler is Scott Roschi, creative director of a Delano, Minn.-based equipment manufacturer. "Kids want to be challenged. Probably the number one thing for kids that I am seeing focuses on height—safely getting kids up higher. And giving them challenging ways to do that. As a result, we're providing a lot of rope climbing elements," Roschi said. "That allows us to offer something to a child developing physically, using their whole bodies in ways that they wouldn't if they were using stairs, for example."

Everybody wants to go higher, agreed Harrison. "I think we've gotten to a place in our industry where people are thinking of the notion of perceived risk, certainly not literal risk. An example would be the development of towers. In the 1990s, our company came out with towers, so now all of us, our company and competitors, are thinking, how do we bring height, in the sense of getting up off the ground into playground design?

"We also see a lot of park and recreation departments in certain areas of the country committed to adventure ropes-style courses," Harrison continued. "We want to bring that sense of thrill to the playground. A great example of that in the last year is that [we] brought out a high structure—a multi, high heights structure that is enclosed; so, while you are 20 feet high up in the air, it is enclosed and safe. This brings a whole level of excitement and challenge to users."

One of his company's playground designs, he added, includes everything needed for hours of play, including different climbers, slides and decks that allow children to safely play far off the ground. From skyscraper-like towers that are nearly 30 feet tall to rope-course inspired skyways, the equipment pushes the limits of play into great heights.

Other trends to watch for include freestanding play that provides opportunities to add individual pieces to a play environment with a smaller investment, while still creating a fresh new addition to the space.

"One of the freestanding emerging trends includes music parks," Chandler said, spaces where multiple generations of users can enjoy playing a variety of metallophones, drums and chimes in an orchestra-like setting.

Music parks not only provide interactive play, she explained, "but they also bring an artistic, architectural aesthetic to a park or community space. They are also a fantastic inclusive play element as there are so many ways to engage, play an instrument, sing along, dance or simply observe the action. Themed play is still important, she explained, as many parks try to capture specific cultural aspects of their community in a design, or to honor a specific heritage, event or person."

Another trend in modern playground design centers on integrating play into the overall physical environment, essentially incorporating natural elements into the play space. Typically, in the past, Roschi explained, "playgrounds were just physically placed into a space, but now there is more collaboration between landscape architects and playground design companies to truly build in hill slides and different types of climbing using the topography that may already be there. Or they may actually create a topography to allow for different types of play than would have been traditionally seen in the past."