Feature Article - November 2019
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United in Play

The Latest Playgrounds Are for Everyone

By Dave Ramont

There's a lot of discussion these days around how children are not getting enough exercise and fresh air, and one big reason is the ever-increasing amount of time spent with electronic devices. But when given the opportunity, it seems that almost no kid—even the most tech-addicted—can resist the lure of an engaging playground.

Designers and manufacturers of playgrounds and playground equipment understand this, and they're always working to create and update products and develop strategies that will get kids excited about spending time at the local playground. So, what are some of the trends and shifts that playgrounds and play spaces are experiencing lately?

"A trend that is shaping play spaces, literally, is topography and play equipment integration," said Scott Roschi, creative director at a Minnesota-based company specializing in the design and manufacture of play equipment. He explained how landscape architects and playground designers are working more closely to reshape what a playground looks like through this collaboration. "Towers are made to look taller by being placed on top of a large hill. Slides and climbing elements on hillsides change the level of play and challenge."

"The most interesting trend continues to be spaces that multiple generations can enjoy," according to Kent Callison, director of marketing at an Alabama-based manufacturer of commercial playground equipment.

Sarah Lisiecki, a marketing communications and education specialist at a Wisconsin-based designer and manufacturer of commercial playground equipment, agreed. "Bringing everyone together in play and focusing on play as exercise is hugely helpful for both physical and mental health," she said.

"It's important to incorporate elements that appeal to young children, teenagers and adults at once," said Callison, explaining how communities are looking for ways to engage people of all ages and abilities in outdoor play and recreation. "Studies show this type of multigenerational and intergenerational play can provide significant social and emotional benefits that are otherwise unrealized when only addressing the needs of a single age group. Multi-user swings, inclusive playgrounds, outdoor fitness parks, nature paths and trails are all great ways to encourage everyone to play together."

Climbing High

One activity that children can't resist is climbing, and climbing on cables and ropes is both challenging and fun for kids, according to Lisiecki. These elements can provide sensory, tactile and climbing experiences for kids of all abilities. "Something unique about this is how children can create their own experience and it will be different each time they climb because of the responsive movement from others playing and moving on the ropes."

Lisiecki's company's rope and mixed-material structure was inspired by urban architecture and the world's most famous bridges. "It encourages interactive play, teamwork and engagement by boasting moving elements that interplay with nearby surfaces, making each play experience unique, exciting and cooperative," she explained.

"Rope and cable climbers are a very fast-growing segment on the playground," agreed Roschi. "The un-prescribed play that these elements provide means there is no beginning, middle or end—just a different way to attack the playground every time. The great thing about designing rope elements into the play space is that because of the inherent movement, the child is using more of their core muscles, giving them a workout, all while playing."

Getting Fit

Speaking of workout, fitness play is another trend that Lisiecki mentioned, since most kids simply aren't getting enough exercise. "While not the only fix, creating spaces where everyone can exercise and move together in a low-pressure environment helps people get more exercise."

Her company's line of fitness playgrounds is designed to challenge and exercise young bodies while providing fun, with the hope of combating the obesity crisis brought on by the use of electronic devices and simple lack of play and movement. "In fact, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that children aged 8 to 18 spend a shocking 7.5 hours [a day] in front of a screen for entertainment," said Lisiecki.

Lisiecki also discussed fitness courses, which bring together a series of challenging physical obstacles that an individual or team can take on. With various levels of challenge and multiple options and configurations available, beginner, intermediate and advanced users are accommodated. There are courses for 5- to 12-year-olds, and 13 and older. They can "create a space where families, communities and even teams or fitness classes can gather and exercise. There's even an app that offers different levels of exercise for each piece of equipment. I see this as a trend that's here to stay and can help us as a country be healthier both physically and mentally," said Lisiecki.

Callison's company also offers challenge course equipment at various levels, with optional timing systems and multiple surface options. They can be pre-designed versions, or venues can select any combination of course components. Callison explained that many communities choose to install obstacle courses and fitness equipment adjacent to traditional playgrounds. "This is one of the ways they address the need for multigenerational recreation and play. While younger children are playing on a playground, parents and adult caregivers can exercise nearby."