Feature Article - July 2018
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Destination: Playgrounds

Modern Playgrounds Create Fun Family Outings

By Rick Dandes

Community Destinations

In the spring of 2013, Maple Grove, Minn., made plans for a new central park in the center of town. A large 40-plus-acre parcel of land and pond was acquired just east of the library and town green in what was formerly a gravel pit.

Maple Grove is about 12 miles from Minneapolis. This urban-like, community park was conceived as another piece of the larger comprehensive plan to create a vibrant walkable city center that linked residents to the many available amenities, including the community center, town green, library, government center and the Arbor Lakes shopping district. The concept plan identified a large open lawn, event space, gardens, active play areas, water features and an ice skating loop.

The community park was built with other features, said Stifter, including a multi-seasonal park building that serves as the park's hub, a spacious central lawn for hosting community events, a splash pad, a large play area with many vibrant and cleverly designed play elements, an outdoor skating area, a wedding garden, a courts area for basketball and pickleball, and a network of trails and walks that provide excellent walking and biking opportunities as well as easy access from the surrounding neighborhoods.

"We were lucky enough at Central Park to do something special and really create a destination facility that we thought was that type of experience for users, said Stifter. "The site is very loved and appreciated by the users, and they want more of it. We are currently going through our system plan for the entire operation, which we do every 10 years, and the demands of the public, when we reach out to them to tell us what they think, keep getting higher and higher. They want those types of facilities everywhere."

What makes Maple Grove interesting and exciting is that it isn't just a structure where all components are in one contraption, Stifter said. It's split off. There are zones of play and they are separated by space, landscaping and topography. The design makes it like a park with play equipment components spread out so it can hold a lot more people, he said. "It was easier for caregivers to be in the space and experience some of the recreation with their children and yet not feel that they were on the apparatus. It was a really nice design. And I'd like to do more of them. The park is super popular and brings in people from all over the state. It's become a destination in both summer and winter."

Maple Grove's Central Park is different from the other parks in the community, Stifter emphasized. "The community parks are intended to be destinations, to bring in lots of people. In this particular one there is an urban feel, where housing is really tight around the edges and it was designed in that manner, so it doesn't have any athletic facilities, like almost every one of our other parks, which have either a baseball or a soccer field. This one is unique in that it doesn't have any of those things. It has gardens and open lawn, a big pavilion—things that will bring people in, but not for sports."

The importance of inclusive play environments continues to gain momentum as more and more parks, schools and communities recognize the valuable cultural benefits and social equity they provide to the local users.

In the past several years, said Roschi, "the biggest change I've seen in playground philosophy is about how play is looked at, and the way communities are seeing the need to bring play back to the community."

What should you be keeping an eye out for? "Well," he said, "we are seeing more of these destination playgrounds, bringing whole communities together and creating play spaces where children of all abilities are able to play side by side."

Playgrounds are becoming community gathering places. "We are starting to see in some of these destination playgrounds a place where moms' groups meet, while their children play together and develop both physical and social skills."

Three-year-old Zachary Blakemore provided the original inspiration behind Zachary's Playground, in Lake Saint Louis, said Darren Noelken, parks and recreation director, City of Lake Saint Louis, Mo. (Its actual name is Zachary's Playground at Hawk Ridge Park.)

Zachary suffers from a rare genetic central nervous system disease (Pelizaeus Merzbacher disease) that confines him to a wheelchair or assistive walking device. But like all children, Zachary loves to play.

"When his mother Natalie would take Zachary to the park to play, the playground would only emphasize his limitations," Noelken said. "And even more frustrating was the fact that the playground's barriers that stopped him from playing also prevented him from interacting with the other children."

But after visiting an accessible playground while traveling to the East Coast, Zachary's parents began to dream of creating an accessible playground in Zachary's hometown—and of the day when playgrounds like this would exist for children everywhere. They teamed with Zachary's pediatric speech therapist, and Unlimited Play was born in 2003.