Feature Article - November 2022
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Play Along

Playground Trends, From Towers & Ropes to Nature, Inclusion & More

By Dave Ramont

I think it's safe to say that most of us occasionally daydream about being a kid again. But it's not always about recapturing some lost innocence or getting a do-over—sometimes it's simply because we want to play! And sometimes when you see the impressive play structures on a modern playground, the urge to climb, swing, slide and spin is overwhelming. And while kids simply want to partake in these activities because it's fun, the designers of these structures and spaces realize that play is more than fun, it's a crucial part of a kid's growth, providing physical, cognitive, sensory and social benefits. Therefore, they're always gathering information to inform what these play spaces should look and feel like.

"Information will be the critical element in new parks and recreation spaces," said Kent Callison, marketing director of a Fort Payne, Ala.-based company that designs and manufactures playground equipment. Callison pointed out that the Forbes Technology Council called data "the currency of the next decade," and explained that park managers and communities are looking for data to help determine where parks should be built, what amenities should be included and how these efforts impact families' lives. "Data points such as the number of visits to a park, the ages of visitors, the length of stay, distance traveled, the amount of physical activity, etc., are key to understanding the role parks play in communities." Callison added that funders also want to know how their contributions to park projects are delivering outcomes that they can share with the community and with other stakeholders.

Of course, when it comes to playgrounds, kids only care about those amenities mentioned above, so let's look at some of the fun stuff. Playground towers are increasingly impressive, and Callison's firm offers fully enclosed structures with platforms up to 12 feet tall and roof heights up to 22 feet. There are preconfigured structures, or custom towers can be designed featuring various climbers, slides, roof systems, interactive components and more. Specific styles and themes can be achieved, including rocket ships, skyscrapers, castles or redwood trees.

"Tower play systems create fun and exciting elevated play areas that encourage positive risk-taking and give children a new perspective of the world around them," said Callison. Designs that save space are often requested, he added, and they've developed a series of towers using square platforms to save space and reduce cost. Options for customization are another big request, to "give customers a lot of flexibility in design to create a tower that is as unique as their community."

Net- and rope-based play systems are also popular, and according to Callison, this is because they give children a different type of climbing challenge from a traditional ladder. "The rope or cable moves as a child climbs, and this enhances both physical and cognitive development. They're also a lot of fun!"

He said communities have asked for two things when it comes to net climbers: challenging play experiences for children of all ages, and inclusive net experiences for children of all abilities. His company's inclusive net climber features a transfer platform at one end, making it possible for users to transfer to or from a mobility device. It attaches to an accessible path with a six-foot slide at the other end, adding a play experience that benefits everyone.

In fact, there's been a lot of education and advocacy surrounding the need for inclusive play since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act 30 years ago, according to Callison, who said that inclusive playground designs are now more essential than ever. He cited Department of Education numbers stating that approximately 6 million children in America between the ages of 3 and 21 had a disability in 2015, and in 2022 that number is 8 million, an increase of 33%. "As the population increases, so does the need."

Callison also said that intergenerational play is on the minds of many parks directors, with 60 million American homes housing three generations of family members, and 80% of park users being over the age of 50 and under the age of 12. "While it may seem prudent to create separate recreation experiences for these two seemingly divergent population groups, the opposite approach has a profound effect on children and older adults." Callison said there are significant social, physical, emotional and cognitive benefits when parents or grandparents play together with children.

Obstacle courses are one popular form of intergenerational play, with preconfigured courses or design-your-own versions available, according to Callison. His company offers a youth version for those ages 5 to 12 and a "pro" series accommodating users 13 and older. Many of the course components can be incorporated as freestanding play events on a playground. "One of the most requested items from customers was a way to incorporate more obstacle course-style activity in play areas."

Callison said the youth version has been a huge hit with elementary schools, and middle and high schools have been adding the pro series. "It's a great way to get older children engaged in physical activity, and in some cases teams use the course for additional athletic training. In parks, we see both ranges installed."

Many schools are upping their game with regard to playgrounds, and Callison said that this can lead to improved academic success for students. He mentioned the six essential elements of play, according to the nonprofit membership organization SHAPE America: spinning, sliding, swinging, balancing, climbing, and brachiating (overhead climbing). "When you incorporate all six of these into a playground design, you can transform a playground into an extension of a PE class and allow students to be more active while they have fun."

Callison cited studies showing that students who partake in physical activity during the school day have an increased chance of achieving better grades and higher test scores. "And if you incorporate fun, active lessons during recess just once per week, you increase students' physical activity by 13% and decrease teachers' time managing behavior by 21%."