Supplement Feature - April 2020
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Playgrounds That Pop

Building a Better Playground

By Rick Dandes

When you want to exceed expectations and create a playground with a huge "wow" factor, think outside of the traditional post-and-platform structure. Be a destination for play by creating a playground with a theme. Build a playground that acts as a pathway into nature by utilizing your surrounding environment. Tell a story. Be dramatic. Engage your entire community of users. Be inclusive as a destination for children, and even adults of all ages and abilities.

That's the advice given by playground builders and manufacturers when asked about trends and concepts in current playground designing.

It wasn't always that way, said Kent Callison, director of marketing communications, for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based manufacturer of play equipment "For decades," Callison said, "a playground was just a series of posts and platforms with the occasional ladder and slide attached. You might find a whirl or a set of swings there, too. This is a fairly traditional thought process many people outside our industry have about building a playground: provide activities for children, help them stay active and run out their excess energy."

There's nothing wrong with that kind of thinking, per se, Callison noted. "It provides an important role in childhood development. But playgrounds can be much more than a set of swings and a slide. They can truly inspire imaginations, create social equity by encouraging people of all ages and abilities to play together, and help children develop socially, emotionally and physically along a developmental continuum as they grow older."

Playgrounds can be community centerpieces that bring people together, break down social and economic barriers, and give people a place to truly connect with the outdoors and with one another, he said. There's nothing else in our society that possesses so great a power to transform everyone equally.

Sarah Lisiecki, marketing communications and education specialist for a play manufacturer based in Fond du Lac, Wis., added to that line of thinking. "In the past," she said, "the school of thought was that play was for children, and it was all about fun. Well, play is certainly for children and it is about fun, but it is also the way children learn, process feelings and develop a variety of skills that transcend the play space."

And play is for everyone of all ages and necessary through all stages of life, she explained. "Because of this, many past play spaces weren't focused on community or intergenerational engagement. Realizing the power of play to connect, develop and help people move in all stages of life has changed the way we approach play space and product design. The focus is more holistic now."

We have never as a society been more sedentary, or spent more of our time indoors, added Ian Proud, director of insights and outreach, outdoor play, for a playground manufacturer in Lewisburg, Pa. "We are not an on-the-ground builder, so I look at things from the perspective of what I've seen our partners do," he said.

According to a National Human Activity Pattern study that looked at how people spend their time, 93% of the average American's time is spent indoors. Another 6% is spent in vehicles.

"That only leaves 3% of our time in the outdoors," Proud said. "There is competition in those hours for family time to go to a playground or park. There are so many other things to do. So, what I think is happening in the market is playgrounds are offering more visual drama, to make that experience a good investment of their precious time outside the house."

There is a renewed focus on returning to the outdoors and the benefits of outdoor play in a variety of developmental areas, added Lisiecki. "Spending time outdoors is again being recognized as a simple and fun way to help children-and adults-reduce stress, increase focus and keep moving to help achieve the recommended level of daily exercise."

Well-designed recreation spaces offer a place for communities to gather together and engage, Lisiecki continued. "No matter age or ability, having a space that fosters intergenerational engagement helps people and communities thrive. It's something that people look for when they decide which communities to call home. Parks and playgrounds attract residents and businesses, drive visitors to a destination and have a positive economic impact on communities. They even positively affect property values by 5 to 20%."

Having recreation spaces is an all-around win for communities, their residents, businesses and visitors. Community leaders, corporations and others are seeing this and beginning to invest accordingly in these spaces, Lisiecki said.