Supplement Feature - April 2019
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Choose Your Own Adventure

Assess Needs, Get Input to Select the Right Play Equipment

By Deborah L. Vence

Many factors should drive the decision for selecting equipment, such as budget, age-appropriateness, accessibility and route of travel, existing grades, sun exposure, aesthetics, themes, truck access for installation crews and available access to power and water, said Tim Nolan, president of a playground equipment supplier in Phoenix, Ariz.

When selecting play equipment, "you should always allow for age separation and some level of access," Nolan said.

"After accounting for that, the two most important factors are balance of play and rotation of play for an overall safe, fun, challenging and memorable playground," he said. "A balance between dynamic climbers and slides properly positioned to allow for a safe rotation of play that encourages safe flow patterns will result in an exciting playground. Keeping the users engaged, moving and stimulated is the main ingredient that differentiates between a static playground and a dynamic playground."

Another suggestion by John A. Amici, president of a company in Havre de Grace, Md., that specializes in commercial playground equipment, safety surfacing, site amenities, aquatic play features and more, is to choose a suitable location for your new playground.

"Once you have the area set, then you can begin to consider play equipment. The right equipment will be fun, age-appropriate and compliant with all applicable guidelines," Amici said.

"To make your playground fun, be sure to include a variety of components that offer a 'graduation of challenges' for the user," he added. "This will keep them coming back. Know who will be using the equipment and design it for that age group. Know who you are working with and be sure that your playground design meets all CPSC guidelines and AS™ standards for public playground safety. Your design should be clearly marked as compliant."

Kit Steven, president of a play equipment design, distribution and specialty contracting firm in Oakland Calif., noted the following in selecting playground equipment:

  • "The fundamental elements are age-appropriateness, available space and budget."
  • "There is always the desire to incorporate the newest components available."
  • "Play value is always a consideration, along with pushing the challenge level—integrating activities to help them stretch their abilities."
  • "Include the seven elements of play where possible." These include: sliding, spinning, balancing, climbing, swinging, brachiating, and sensory.
  • "Think how the children will attack the playground—as we design, run in their shoes, so to speak, to discover how their eyes will draw them from one device to the next. This ensures a well-designed playground that flows, and that will be well-utilized."

Budget also drives the theme of playground equipment.

"The specifics of actual components and apparatus integrated in the design will result from an assessment of age group, number of kids in the play area at a time and asking questions of the customer to determine their feeling about moving pieces of equipment and certain types of slides and climbers," said Bob Ahrens, president of a commercial-grade park and playground equipment consulting and design firm in San Antonio.

Similarly, Eric Huber, vice president of an outdoor recreation equipment distributor in California, suggests asking a lot of questions in order to assess the end user's needs.

"Observe how the park is currently being used (number of users, type, vandalism, etc.). What are the goals of the owner (i.e., destination or neighborhood park)? What is the budget?" he said.

"Choosing the right play equipment depends on your community's needs. Some of the things to consider would be age ranges (playgrounds are divided into ages 2 to 5 and 5 to 12), skill level, inclusiveness, size of area and style."

Meanwhile, Patty Hobson, vice president, inclusion and inclusion specialist for a New Albany, Ohio-based company that designs, supplies, and builds recreational play and site structures, said that "When working with park departments, HOAs or any customer outside of schools, I tell them it's important for them to not install the same type of playground equipment at their parks, etc., that the kids use every day at recess. Duplicating school playgrounds doesn't stir up enough interest in kids to encourage them to go outside and play."

She encourages customers to not put all of their money into a large post-and-platform structure, but instead, to use freestanding structures that offer movement and parent/child interaction, as well as a variety of activities and challenge levels.

For parks, "I tell them having every park in the city looking the same—2-to-5, 5-to-12 and swing set—does not encourage their community to explore their parks," Hobson said. "Some park decision-makers buy this typical playground equipment because it's easy on their end. They just keep duplicating what they already have. Also, this cuts down on neighborhoods complaining that other neighborhoods have nicer playgrounds than what they have."

When it comes to schools, Hobson truly feels that there is a "large percentage of children who we have always classified as typically developing who are not developing typically because of technology/screen time. I suggest playground structures that encourage open-ended play, social interaction and cooperative play opportunities."

She also noted a few points that she brings up with her customers and explains why play spaces and their chosen structures are important.

For example, "Recess is sometimes the only time kids go outside on a typical day. Many kids are told to stay inside when they get home from school until their parents get home from work because it's safer than being outside," she said. "This promotes more screen time. When parents get home from work, it's usually dark outside, and it's also time for dinner and homework."

Also, "Children are not outside spontaneously developing their bodies and their spirits by spinning, bouncing, sliding, climbing, running, etc.," she said. "They are missing the benefits of human interaction, eye-to-eye contact, touch and conversation.

"Children," she added, "are not learning by leading an activity, inventing a game, accepting differences or pretending to be Tarzan. Free unstructured play helps children learn conflict resolution, burn calories, sleep, eat and learn better, unwind, de-stress, become resilient and discover the world outside the walls. The 'free' unstructured play that has always been a part of childhood has decreased substantially through the years."