Supplement Feature - April 2020
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Playgrounds That Pop

Building a Better Playground

By Rick Dandes

The 'Wow' Effect

Municipalities and school districts typically come in with a fixed budget and an idea based on what they've seen at other parks, Annis said. "They choose post-and-platform playgrounds because they are repeatable and comprised of ready-to-ship product. They typically require less budget, but they are also typically unoriginal."

"Tell a story," said Lehman. "The playground industry has gotten to the point where it is like a box of Legos, where you have all these different parts and colors to choose from and a lot of the design is based around engineering. Engineering drives the design: How can we make this as modular as possible so it can be built quickly?"

Once you understand the story, the idea, then the playground structure can tell the story, and the design unfolds from there, Lehman said. "The idea for Casey's Clubhouse was that people in that community are into baseball. At PNC Park, where the Pittsburgh Pirates play, when you stand at home plate, it overlooks downtown Pittsburgh. The kids built their own downtown Pittsburgh with scrap materials. In our playground when you are standing at home plate you see the re-creation of downtown Pittsburgh. You see the bridge, the PNC building, all these iconic buildings and so the actual play environment, along with the surfacing is downtown Pittsburgh." That evoked a large "wow" with users, Lehman said.

"There is an increasing value placed on originality," Lehman continued. "The current generations of kids have the ability to customize their own shoes, T-shirts, sports gear and their own personal brand through social media, apps and more. They value originality and unique identity, and they want their surrounding world to do the same. To go to a unique site, a unique playground, and have them post an image that says something about it, it can drive budgeting for municipalities. They are a factor in the decision-making. If it is more visible to the community, then it is perceived to be more valuable."

There are many ways to create a wow effect with a playground design, Callison added, "but they aren't all limited to visual experiences. For many families, when going to a park or a playground, they want to see something for every member of the family, from 8 years old to 80. One of the ways to provide this is with fitness equipment. Many communities choose to install fitness equipment and obstacle courses adjacent to traditional playgrounds. This is another way they address the need for multigenerational recreation and play. While younger children are playing on a playground, parents or adult caregivers can exercise nearby."

It's important to make sure the fitness area or obstacle course meets the ASTM standards for fitness spaces and is in a separate area from the play space, but by having them within compliant proximity, you create tremendous opportunities for people of all ages to realize the benefits of outdoor play.

A challenge course, Callison suggested, gives the entire family the opportunity to be active together. "It's a fun and friendly way to compete with one another or against the clock. And visually, they do look really cool. Imagine pulling up to a park and seeing something that looks like a Ninja Warrior course from a television show. That kind of visual appeal really draws people into a space. And the fun of it, keeps them coming back time after time."

Speaking of visual appeal, Callison said, look for ways to create custom play activities that match the playground to the community in some way. "In Kennewick, Wash., for example, the community is known for a hydroplane race held on the Columbia River every year for 50 years. They also have a lighthouse along the river and an iconic bridge. We designed a playground that brought together all of these elements into the design of the playground to make it personalized for the community and to connect people with their city in a fun and playful way."

Another project, involving the National Zoo at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., was meant to be an extension of the museum itself-a learning experience about bees and their role in our environment, Callison explained. "We designed the space as a playful exhibit, with a massive honeycomb entryway, larger than life flowers and bees, a giant tree and plenty of educational signage throughout the space. Children and families visit the playground/exhibit every day. They run, climb and laugh together, all while learning about the importance of bees in the environment."

Finally, in Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles, designers used a combination of modern-looking playground equipment with bright colors to create a space that captures your eye and imagination the moment you arrive. The play structures are open and encourage parents and adult caregivers to get involved in play. The brightly colored safety surfacing is soft and cushiony and complements the equally vibrant shade structures that keep everything cooler and more comfortable.

There many factors associated with designing a playground that wows the community, Callison said. "Of course, budget is a consideration, and you always have to be sensitive to the budgetary, and sometimes space, restrictions of a municipality."

But there is more than $300 billion in grants and funding available in the United States from organizations committed to helping communities create play and recreation spaces, he noted.

The biggest factor is making sure the play area is based on valid and current research on childhood development, physical and social wellness, accessibility. Create play areas and places that align with best practices to make sure everyone benefits from the play space to the greatest extent possible. This, to make a lasting impact to enhance the quality of life for children and families for decades to come.