Feature Article - January 2019
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Challenge Minus Danger

Playground Advancements Help Children Experience Risk With Fewer Big Injuries

By Chris Gelbach

Variety for All

As recreation departments strive to provide playgrounds that up the entertainment and developmental value, they are increasingly opting for a broader variety of play options.

"Something interesting trend-wise that we're seeing is having a huge amount of play variety," Liesiecki said. This helps create a playground space that gives all kids the opportunity to be challenged at a level at which they're comfortable while also pushing them a little bit. "It meets them at the level they're at and gives them a level to step up to and work toward and maybe fail and then be taught resiliency by keeping going back," she said.

In his work, Rambaud is also seeing more and more requests for custom playgrounds that are unique and offer more 'wow' factor. "People are looking for something different. I hear that all the time," Rambaud said. "They want something less plastic, something more transparent, something that nobody else has."

According to Rambaud, these requests often include taller rope towers, more embankment slides, and slides that go down to different elevations and levels of the structure. This can also include rope structures and other elements en route to the top of the slide.

"That's the key—functional—not just a bunch of steps to get to a slide," Rambaud said. "They want something that adds play value and function, while they're getting all the things they're looking for, which is the height, the visual, the unique and something inclusive. They seem to want everything, and there are options to get it—or at least diversity in the playground."

He's also seeing more interest in spinning elements and group swings. Providing a diversity of options within a category of play to better serve and include all users is another growing trend.

For instance, swing areas are now more likely to contain options such as traditional belt swings, swings with back support that children with mobility issues can use safely and face-to-face parent/toddler swings. In addition to boosting the fun factor for all, this approach also helps children build empathy for others, helps build stronger bonds and encourages collaborative and group play.

Group spinners that include seating options that allow children of all abilities to play together are also becoming more popular. Along with other options such as zip and cable rides, a general trend toward more motion on the playground is growing.

With these moving parts come increased maintenance obligations. "Motion products require even more maintenance than the normal playground does because there's something moving, there's a bearing or rope or chain—something's rubbing somewhere to have motion," Liebelt said. "So the maintenance program becomes even more important with those types of products."

The Importance of Community Support

Getting buy-in from the community is important to maximizing the play value of a new playground. Building these relationships can also provide valuable touchpoints at which to reiterate the importance of certain safety measures.

"If I'm a recreation manager and I'm thinking about my job, I want to provide some of the most fun play experiences that I can," Norquist said. "And I want to do that in a way that people in my community get excited about it and they want to come and play in the parks. So I'm thinking I'm going to be exploring some of the newer play equipment."

Norquist recommends conducting community meetings about play and playgrounds at community centers or other local gathering spaces to have a two-way communication to inform the public about what facilities are available. It can also be an opportunity to remind people about important safety procedures such as being sure kids aren't wearing drawstrings to the playground, aren't wearing bike helmets while on the equipment, and aren't doing things like tying a rope onto an overhead ladder to make a Tarzan rope.

At these meetings, parents and children can also be given a number to call and encouraged to contact the recreation department if they observe any kind of equipment malfunction on any playground.

These hazards, as the NRPA notes in its Playground Safety Fact Sheet, can include "things such as missing, broken or worn-out components; fatigued or deteriorated metal, wood and plastic; and vandalism or graffiti. All parts of equipment should be stable with no signs of loosening, and surfacing material should be maintained."

The meetings can provide additional value in giving the department an opportunity to dive deeper with patrons and learn what equipment and offerings they like and don't like. "Listen to the community and use that as the basis for your capital improvement programs over the next five, 10 years," Norquist said. "That would be a great support system and would create alignment with your users and get them on board with your program. When it comes time for a bond [down the road], they're probably going to pass it."

Proper surfacing and equipment design to minimize fall heights and the consequences of falls are critical. But maximal safety also requires ongoing maintenance and proper supervision. In the end, recreation managers are responsible for creating the safest, most entertaining and most adventurous playgrounds they can. But the best playground results in terms of safety, utilization and fun will always come through a commitment to ongoing community involvement.