Feature Article - November 2020
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The Play's the Thing

New Innovations on the Playground

By Dave Ramont


Theming is still a popular choice for playgrounds, as it's a way to tell a story and create an imaginative play experience, according to Lisiecki. "A tower can be, to a child, a castle, a rocket ship, a mountaintop or a racecourse. They develop their own play experiences and it can be different every time. That's the beauty of child-directed play—it's their experience to define."

Callison can't imagine theming ever going away, since people love to personalize things and theming allows for endless possibilities. "You can do something very simple like add a custom entrance sign, or add a couple small elements here and there that give it a forest theme or an ocean theme. You can do big, massive climbers made of different materials that help tell the story and history of a space."

He described a couple of their projects that feature theming, including the Playground of Dreams in Kennewick, Wash. In a series of open houses, citizens told the city they wanted some local touches added to the park's rebuild. A cable-style bridge and lighthouse were included, mimicking landmarks found on the nearby Columbia River. And in a nod to the town's history and annual hydroplane races, hydroplane amenities were included.

Set within Whitehaven Lane Park in Memphis, Tenn., is David Carnes Park, honoring one of the first African-American landowners in Memphis, who was a blacksmith. "So we built a custom blacksmith shop right there in the middle of the park," said Callison, "with lots of play elements and things to do to pretend you're a blacksmith." There is also a picture and brief history of Carnes. "It's a great way for future generations to learn this history of the community without the history being lost, while making it playful too."

Many communities don't have an internal resource to determine how a playground space should be used, according to Callison. He described their build team which is made up of play space designers, architects and sensibility experts, who work with municipalities on design, contracts, building codes, etc. They hold community meetings to get citizens' input. "We're not just providing them with a playground structure, we're helping them determine how the space is going to be used for the next 10, 15, 20 years and beyond. We look at a lot of things that determine what they need right now and how to forecast what the need will be for future generations." This might include thinking about inclusion on a bigger scale than just ramps, current and future demographics, considering extending walking paths, looking at how public transit might get people to your space, etc.

Play, playground, recreation and outdoor fitness areas bring people together outdoors, and design plays a huge role in the usability of these spaces, according to Lisiecki, whose firm also has a design team. She mentioned some of the items they consider when helping communities meet their project objectives, including all applicable standards, including location, visibility, parking, allocated space, budget, playground capacity, inclusivity and accessibility, age range and play experience, whether that be adventure, theme, fitness or a combination.

Making playground spaces more inclusive is a major consideration, and more and more designers and manufacturers are looking beyond ADA guidelines. Callison explained that these days, communities are typically much more educated when it comes to building inclusive spaces, and it's become a major driver. "They'll come to us and say, 'We have a population with 5% that use mobility devices and we have 20% of our children under the age of 21 that have some type of cognitive disorder, so what kind of sensory play activities do you have?'"

While pointing out that no two kids are the same, Callison suggested ways to try to accommodate the needs of a child on the autism spectrum, like making sure the equipment is spaced further apart than normal, including activities that provide a sensory-rewarding type of mechanism like roller slides and textured climbers, and having cozy spaces that provide relief from too much sensory input.

He explained that it's helpful to have boundaries—not barriers—around the play area. "It doesn't have to be a fence, it could be plantings, art work, statues or land forming." Creating a sense of boundary around the play area diminishes the likelihood of running off, according to Callison. Users "feel safe and enclosed without feeling trapped."

Other considerations Callison mentioned include charging stations for mobility devices; restrooms that have changing tables for adults with mobility devices, or changing tables that lower or raise with a motor so a parent with a mobility device can change their child; climbers that are made of molded plastic and have built-in hand holds and grips that make it easy to maneuver or transfer to the climber; truly inclusive climbers that also have sensory panels and games to engage people of all abilities, whether on the ground or on the climber itself. "Even looking at ways to make nets or things that you wouldn't ordinarily think of as inclusive, inclusive. Really trying to push the boundaries of what it means to offer playground equipment that's including everyone."

A playground swing in which an adult and child can swing together and interact face to face has been a big hit, according to Callison, as it promotes intergenerational play. It's offered in different versions, including one for older children of all abilities, which features an adaptive swing seat.

Lisiecki described one of their swings that is "specially designed for children that use mobility devices with an angled seat back that provides extra support and comfort. These options mean everyone can swing together in the same space at a level that's comfortable and accessible for them."

Creating a play environment that is both inclusive and equitable for all is not only a trend but a necessity, according to Lisiecki, who said they focus on universal design, meaning that all children and all people of all ages and abilities are able to access the space and engage with it. "This means there is play variety so no matter what the child's interest, ability or attention level, there is something that meets them where they are and challenges them to grow."

Called "the nation's most innovative and inclusive playground", Magical Bridge opened in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2015. It features distinct play zones designed to accommodate everyone, seamless pathways and retreat spaces for those needing a break. There's wheelchair access to a two-story playhouse, treehouse and top of a slide mound. Fully accessible equipment includes bucket swings, spinning features, wide slides, a sway boat and a merry-go-round flush with the ground. Other features include a Kindness Corner, 24-string laser harp, original interactive artwork, tactile slides and surfaces, and plenty of shade.