Feature Article - November 2020
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The Play's the Thing

New Innovations on the Playground

By Dave Ramont


While this year has proved challenging for many of us, one could argue that it has been particularly hard on children. And with schooling and other activities so profoundly disrupted, play and recreation seem more important than ever when it comes to kids' development, as play offers many social, physical, cognitive and emotional benefits. And now, when spending time outdoors is deemed safer than gathering indoors, playgrounds are an even more integral part of that equation. Thankfully, playground and playground equipment designers are pushing forward with new innovations and ideas to help kids reap the benefits of play and to just plain have fun.

One big trend? Net climbers, according to Kent Callison, marketing director for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based firm that designs and manufactures playground equipment. "Kids love to climb—it's hard-wired in a kid's brain to climb, to try to reach a higher level, to get to a different vantage point," he said. "The way that nets work with undulating movement and you have to use your hands and feet and mind all at once—it's a great skill-building product. We're doing a lot of research making sure that nets are developmentally appropriate, a lot of fun and something that includes as many people as possible."

"Rope systems are fun and challenging and have a unique way of making the climbing experience different every time with reactive motion," added Sarah Lisiecki, marketing communications and education specialist for a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based company that designs and manufactures playground equipment. "A child climbing on the other side, for example, moves the rope so another child climbing feels that movement and it changes their overall experience. Kids can pretend they're climbing a mountain, or that the ground is 'lava.' It keeps the experience fresh and exciting."

Play towers—structures that achieve a lot of height—have also been gaining in popularity, and Callison thinks they're about to turn a corner and become even more mainstream, though he cautions that meeting standards is key. "For an 18- or 20-foot tower, you've got to have a surface to attenuate that fall, you have to have the tower itself enclosed. So I think that towers that meet standards are going to be really big in the future.

"The other thing that's getting a lot of traction are the musical instruments," said Callison. "A lot of people offer things that make noise, but I mean actually finding your tuned instrument where you lose that barrier between child and the ability to make music."

He discussed a musical product line his company has been developing along with a Grammy-winning percussionist where the instruments are tuned to a pentatonic scale, so when a user plays more than one note at a time it sounds in tune. "So a child with special needs, for example, walks up to the chimes and plays two notes at the same time and it sounds beautiful; it doesn't sound like they've made a mistake. And now they want to play more, and other kids hear. It's a social experience. You take that barrier away, when every note is a right note—that's exciting!"

Lisiecki agrees that musical play and exploration are fun and beneficial for people of all ages and abilities. "Music is a universal language and helps children connect with each other, learn and comprehend language and provides another creative outlet for outdoor play. Outdoor musical instruments are popular in parks and recreation areas, schools, churches and community outdoor spaces and as part of a play space or standalone events."

Adventure playgrounds that get kids moving and feature exciting climbing pieces and tall, twisting slides are another trend that Lisiecki mentioned. "We're competing with screens that provide constant stimulation, so designing a play environment that brings a sense of excitement and allows children to create their own play experience—one that is different every time—helps to bring them outside and into their own minds and bodies for the adventure instead of someone else's.

"Intergenerational engagement is a trend we've been taking note of and are really excited about," said Lisiecki, pointing out that bringing people of all ages and abilities together in the same space to engage in exercise and play is a great way to foster healthy habits and community relationships. She described how their obstacle courses, designed for ages 5 to 12 and 13-plus, offer a fun workout where parents and children, sports teams and community organizations can work out together at different levels in an engaging environment. "This helps build community pride and camaraderie from people of all ages and provides a space for healthy, non-screen fun. With obesity rates rising in all age groups, public exercise spaces can help combat this trend."

Callison agreed that the obstacle or challenge courses are very popular, with his company offering a Youth and Pro series, with an optional timing system available. Three surfacing options are offered with the courses, including engineered wood fiber (EWF), poured rubber or professional-grade synthetic turf. The pre-configured courses fit within a 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot area, but customers with smaller or larger areas can design their own course. "We give them the opportunity to create these modular courses and pick and choose any of the different categories of products and configure it," said Callison, adding that the courses are perfect for those kids who've aged out of traditional playgrounds. "It's a nice multi-generational product. I see that segment growing more and more."