Feature Article - November 2019
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United in Play

The Latest Playgrounds Are for Everyone

By Dave Ramont

Theming & More

Sometimes a playground just needs a shot in the arm, a chance to bring some new amenities onboard to rekindle excitement. "Retrofits are a great opportunity to update an older playground," said Roschi. "By swapping out slides and play panels, it not only ups the fun but freshens up the design aesthetic with new colors and materials. One of the design features of our playgrounds is our clamping system, which allows us to easily update playground components that are sometimes decades old."

The use of theming at playgrounds continues to be common, and oftentimes the themes are vehicles for letting kids' imaginations run wild. Possibilities are numerous, including nautical themes, space, the old west, trains, circus or castles. Sometimes themes tell a story, tied to the history of a particular space or region, and manufacturers will customize equipment to fit that story.

Nature play is popular, blending the playground into the surrounding environment. Nature-inspired products might include a treehouse or clubhouse, log tunnels, rock climbers or bridges. "Nature play is a way to bring natural colors, materials and a clubhouse feel to any play space," said Lisiecki. "There is an innate need for humans to connect with the natural world around them, and being able to bring this idea to the play space is both popular and necessary."

The textures of real rock and wood might be incorporated, but she said that however it's accomplished, nature play significantly improves all aspects of child development—physical, cognitive, social and emotional. "Playing outdoors grows resilience, self-confidence, initiative, creativity and gives children an opportunity for self-expression."

Play Equity

With all the talk of how beneficial it is to get kids back outside and playing, we sometimes forget that for some children, it's not an easy option. KaBOOM! is a national nonprofit dedicated to giving all kids—especially those living in poverty—safe places to play. The organization points out that play is an equity issue, and for the 14 million kids living in poverty, play can be hard to come by as their families face many obstacles to play, including a lack of safe places, under-resourced schools that cut recess and physical education, and too much screen time.

Over its 20-plus-year history, KaBOOM! has directly built more than 3,100 playgrounds, and when that number is combined with grants, the organization has built or improved more than 17,000 play spaces.

KaBOOM!'s unique model pairs funding partners with under-resourced communities, who come together to build safe playgrounds. The Play Everywhere Challenge—which recently awarded $1 million to 22 projects across western New York and southeast Michigan—invites communities to submit creative design ideas that make it easier for families to incorporate play into everyday moments, such as implementing swings at bus stops or play zones at laundromats.

Jennifer DeMelo, director of programs and operations at KaBOOM!, related how kids often have barriers to accessing play opportunities. "Especially kids that are living in poverty," she emphasized. "Typically, their caregivers have multiple jobs and other priorities that are keeping them from actually going to a playground and making play a priority. Play Everywhere is a wonderful solution, not only to inspire cities to consider designing with kids in mind, but also to meeting kids at those moments when things aren't necessarily fun: medical centers, DMVs, laundromats, bus stops, city agencies, downtown plazas—anywhere really."

"Older kids are often aged-out of traditional playground spaces, and they're just not adequate, interesting or fun," said DeMelo, explaining that playgrounds typically accommodate kids in the 2-to-5 and 5-to-12 age range. To address this concern, KaBOOM! has introduced Adventure Courses, so communities can design and build fun, challenging options for physical activity, aimed at kids aged 10 and older. Another innovation is multi-sport courts, featuring easy-to-install and maintain interlocking panels, which provide communities with a wide variety of different sports using the same space, such as basketball, hockey, volleyball and more. "These help older kids reduce toxic stress, increase creativity, build strong friendships and just be kids."

Beyond the Basics

Designers and manufacturers continue to innovate and update when it comes to play equipment, universal design, surfacing and safety features, maintenance strategies and where playgrounds are located. But everyone agrees that the old classic swing and slide will never go out of style, though according to Lisiecki, there are ways to enhance the experience of swinging and sliding while maintaining the developmental benefits of the classics. "Adding height and creating fun angles for slides offers children a surprise and a sense of discovery. Developing swings that can be used individually or by a group adds the socialization and cooperative play aspect to the traditional swinging experience," she said.

Roschi agrees that the exhilaration of slides and swings will always be big hits. "You can go to any busy playground, and you will almost always see every type of swing filled and—in the case of multi-user swings—a line formed waiting for the chance to swing right across from their friends. For designers, creating taller towers opens the ability to thrill with longer slide rides and we never hear complaints about a longer ride."

Callison believes that these amenities will always stay relevant. "There are few things more fun—nor more beneficial to the development of a child's body, mind and emotions—than a swing and a slide!" RM