Making playgrounds appealing, safe and challenging enough to keep kids interested
By Elisa Kronish
If you're over 30, you probably remember your carefree childhood playground days spent on equipment like teeter-totters, sky-high metal slides, merry-go-rounds and soaring swings with hot asphalt under your swinging feet. You spent hours out there, getting dirty, laughing, chasing, running, maybe getting a few bruises and scrapes. But it was all in the name of good wholesome fun, right?
Not only are those quaint wooden teeter-totters often deemed unsafe these days, but now kids spend countless hours playing inside—in front of the TV, video games and computer. Times have changed, and it's essential to keep up. Just because kids have more choices when it comes to types and places of play, doesn't mean that playgrounds are obsolete. It just means that those who are involved with the funding, creation and management of playgrounds need to take play, well, seriously.
With childhood obesity rates what they are—as high as 25 percent in children under 15—it's essential that kids learn to consider outdoor activity an important option among many sedentary options.
"We've made it exciting for them to be inside—now we need to make it exciting again for them to be outside," says Steve King, president of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association. "We've got to get kids away from the TV and video and get them outside," King says, stressing that if obesity isn't nipped in the bud, it will likely follow those children right into adulthood.
And it's not just kids' bodies that are affected by exercise, but their minds as well. Recently, the Department of Education in Georgia decided to nix recess time as a waste of time.
"Two years later, they realized that kids got better grades if they're allowed to play and burn off stress," says King, who also is the owner of a playground-equipment manufacturer.
"The more stimulated they are in the outdoor environment, the more they will be in other situations too, when they go back to math class or history or whatever it is," says Dianne Noth, senior director of operations for the National Center for Boundless Playgrounds, a nonprofit inclusive play advocate organization based in Bloomfield, Conn. "Play is just as important as class time when they're trying to build their life. Play matters."
Just as individual kids benefit from having a playground in their community or school, communities as a whole benefit as well. In an underprivileged area of Grand Rapids, Mich., a new playground demonstrated that the city was committed to making improvements.
"Master planning showed that this area was one of the most needy in terms of crime; in fact, the park is named after a fallen officer," explains Jay Steffen, Grand Rapids park and recreation department director. "We provided opportunities for organizations to come together and make a statement that people did care about the area."
With a nudge from the city, the residents of a neglected area start to care more too, Steffen says.
"Our hope is that in addition to providing green space, we create a catalyst for other projects that improve the area," he says. "I think you'll see a marked change there in the next three to five years."
In the planning stages of a new playground and especially the update of an old one, one of the most important considerations is safety. With federal and consumer product safety standards that started emerging in 1981, playground injuries have decreased over the years, but they're still a concern. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 200,000 preschool and elementary children receive emergency care for injuries that occur on playground equipment, three-quarters of which happen on public playgrounds.
"Years ago, the most popular surfacing was asphalt because it was considered softer than concrete," says Fran Wallach, Ed.D., president of Total Recreation Management Services, Inc., in New York. "Now surfaces are much safer. There are rubber mats, engineered wood fibers, mulch and other soft surfaces."
While manufacturers carry much of the responsibility in creating safe equipment and surfacing, it doesn't mean rec managers can go to recess.
"Many people in our industry don't even realize how bad their surface is," King says. "If they had the training, they wouldn't wait until there was a lawsuit."
New or simply properly maintained surfacing is an investment that King says indicates that the city or facility is determined to provide the highest safety standards for its playground users.
In St. Charles, Ill., each of the 70 city-managed playgrounds gets inspected once a month.
"We try to see problems occurring early, before an accident happens," says Dave Johnson, assistant superintendent of St. Charles parks and recreation. "We do a lot of preventive maintenance."
While he understands that his community is fortunate to have the financial resources to provide such services, he also notes that St. Charles simply makes it a priority.
"If [safe playgrounds] are not important to a city, then the community won't dedicate the resources necessary to support it," Johnson says. Every 10 years or so, the St. Charles playgrounds get a major overhaul, and improving safety is always taken into account.
"We tend not to use swings too much anymore at school sites," Johnson says. "You may have hundreds of kids running around who may not watch where they're going, and supervision is lower at school playgrounds."
Plus, when swing sets are installed, they hog up a lot of space for required safety zones. Slides do too.
"You need a lot of room for kids to be able to come off the slide without interference," Johnson explains. In terms of height, forget about the roller-coaster-like slides.
"You don't see things going very high anymore," Johnson says.
A lot of the changes have to do with liability, King admits. If safety were up to risk managers, he says, "they'd have you build a foam box on ground level."
With restrictions and risks enough to send lawyers into a frenzy, what's left to make a playground fun? For some time after the safety guidelines came into play on playgrounds, equipment options were a little disappointing, and some still are.
"We frequently get letters from parents saying, 'We just got a new playground, and there's nothing to do,'" King says. "If we continue to dumb-down our playgrounds, kids will be so bored, they'll leave in five minutes."
Hence, the recent movement to put some of the that good ol' thrill back in playgrounds. Equipment manufacturers have realized they need to come up with new ideas that are safe, yet still challenging and fun.
"They're not taking the fun out of playgrounds," Johnson says. "Other items are just taking the place of old ones."
Constant creativity is key.
"I feel like the playground equipment manufacturers have done amazing things keeping to safety guidelines and still coming up with creative play," says Melanie Barnes, assistant director for project management at nonprofit community-build organization, KaBOOM!
So what's new and challenging? There's plenty, and more on the way all the time.
Playground climbing walls continue to rise in popularity. Not expert versions, but kid-sized, with peaks at maybe three feet high.
"Rock-climbing is huge," Barnes says. "About 80 percent of the playgrounds we've worked on recently want some kind of climbing wall."
Besides the fun factor, like all playground components, climbing walls have an added bonus: "They're great for building upper- and lower-body strength."
Some adults worry about the safety of the climbing walls.
"Something may seem unsafe to parents, but we know it meets safety guidelines, and we can educate them on that," says Sarah Pinsky, KaBOOM! spokesperson. "A lot of it has to do with the importance of proper safety surfacing."
To match your playground environment, manufacturers keep adding new colors to climbing walls, so you can make it wild and bright or go subdued and earthy.
Another popular playground piece is the faux boulder.
"When they use their imagination, a boulder can become a mountain, a car, a volcano, whatever they want," Barnes says.
In Peoria, Ariz., one of the city playgrounds was chosen in spring 2004 to participate as a guinea pig for the manufacturer of these big artificial rocks, which can be as large as 8 feet high by 13 feet long by 8 feet wide. Made of glass fiber reinforced concrete, the materials are durable against the elements and may last for decades. Plus, the novelty of it as an alternative to classic play structures attracts curious kids.
"It looks like one great big boulder that's been dropped into the middle of the playground," says Kirk Haines, parks manager for the City of Peoria. "The kids are really drawn to it. They sort of look at it and think, 'Hmmmmm...' And then they start climbing on it."
Kids learn problem-solving skills by finding different ways to reach the top of the rocks. They challenge themselves by seeing how far they can jump off of it (with lots of safety surfacing below, of course). And they assemble on top of it as a novel kind of social gathering spot.
"It takes creative play to a new level," says Haines, who has been pleased with the response from kids, parents and city officials. "I suspect that when the city council is able to authorize some budgeted funds, we'll purchase more," he says.
Another kid-crowd-pleaser is the long-loved slide. Slides have come down in height, but the fun has been reassigned to other areas. Now slides have sections where kids scoot through tubes and double-slides so friends can race each other down or just go down in synch.
Kids also get a kick out of overhead events like monkey bars.
"It's great they're asking for these things," says Barnes, who's always looking at the learning aspects of each playground piece. "These are areas that are challenging for kids. Every time they can get to another rung, that kid's confidence goes up another rung too."
However, King predicts there could, naturally, be a slight increase in the number of injuries due to the more challenging apparatus.
"But it's to the benefit of kids," King says. "I don't think we should fear the increase in challenge. It's time to look at it from a kid's point of view and reach a compromise on safety vs. challenge."
In terms of design and layout, it's typical now to see platforms, walkways and bridges that connect various sections of the play structure. These allow kids to move smoothly from one area to another and give them various access points to each area, so there's less crowding as kids get on and off the equipment.
Another top issue is sun exposure.
"Since UV protection is so important, another big thing you see is a lot of overhead canopies for shade," Johnson says.
Materials also have gone through changes. Once almost exclusively made out of heavy metal, options for equipment materials have expanded to include aluminum, wood and especially plastic, though each one has its pros and cons.
"We have almost no metal on our playgrounds because a slide in the sun gets pretty hot, and with wood, you can get splinters," Johnson says of the St. Charles playgrounds. "For the actual areas where kids are climbing, we generally use plastic."
On the other hand, plastic may not always be as durable as metal.
"A lot of manufacturers have gone to plastic components, but being a large urban parks department, we tend to shy away from a lot of plastic because of threat of vandalism," says Steffen of Grand Rapids, Mich. "People will try to cut or burn or graffiti plastic, so it's harder for us to maintain. We try to go for aluminum or steel. The aluminum and steel are typically more expensive but in the long run, it's more cost-effective for us."
Always on the minds of playground designers are ADA accessibility guidelines. While these guidelines have made a difference on many playgrounds, for some, they don't go far enough.
"The ADA standard says the kids need to be able to get to the equipment and touch it," says Noth of Boundless Playgrounds. "But it doesn't say they need to be able to interact with it."
While it doesn't argue against the ADA, Boundless Playgrounds encourages playground designers to go beyond the minimum requirements.
"If you build a ramp to nowhere, there's no point; if the kids can't engage in the play, then there's no point," Noth says. "If you end up sitting at the edge of a pile of wood chips, then it's not accessible." Playground planners need to think universally.
"Think of that child in a manually operated wheelchair who works so hard to get down the path and up the ramp and then there's nothing for them to do when they get there," she says. For example, a child in a wheelchair might not be able to go down a slide, but the next-best thing might be to provide a way for the child to get to the point where kids are climbing up to the slide.
"At least then they're in the middle of the fun," Noth says. "It's partly a dignity issue," she explains. "They can feel embarrassed if they're isolated away from the play."
Boundless Playgrounds, which has operated for six years and helped guide the design of nearly 70 playgrounds, looks to kids themselves to come up with ideas. From one young boy who uses a wheelchair, they learned even swings can be accessible. Matthew, now 13, imagined a type of swing that would allow him to swing with his friends. The idea was turned into reality by a manufacturer.
"He might not experience it the same way they do, but he can experience it with the other kids," Noth says. It works by allowing children in wheelchairs to ride up and get on in their wheelchair. "It's like a big boat that can be swayed by a group of kids including those in wheelchairs," Noth explains.
Spray features can be a perfect opportunity for inclusion if designed appropriately.
"If you put in the right surfacing, that's a great way for everyone to play together," Noth says. On the other hand, if the park has created a sunken area that can only be reached by jumping into it, then that restricts kids in wheelchairs from getting there.
"We saw a park where kids had to go through a moat of water to get to the sprinkler; the child pushing a manual wheelchair ends up getting his hands wet and slippery and struggles to get through the moat," Noth recalls. "A good-intentioned designer didn't think of such a situation."
Children with autism may not have the same physical challenges, but their needs also affect the design of a truly an all-inclusive playground.
"It can get very crowded and chaotic on a playground," Noth says. "Children with autism tend to shut down when they're over-stimulated. But if you just build a few quiet, cozy places where they can go and regroup, they can return to the play."
Visual impairments also can be easily accommodated with a few clever and minimal modifications.
"Put Braille labels on equipment to identify it," Noth suggests. Another simple design element: different surfacing textures so children with sight impairments can experience variations in their environment and changes in color so they can see the changes from platform to stairs or various levels.
When KaBOOM! was working on a community build with the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind, the pre-design meetings included physical therapists and occupational therapists. When the three design alternatives were completed, tactile maps were also created so all the children could understand the three options and vote. The final design included a sensory garden for different smells and touch sensations.
"It's all these details that make a big difference," Noth says. "Every kid deserves a chance to develop to their fullest."
While you might not see those nostalgic merry-go-rounds around anymore, playground design and equipment have made positive strides in safety, accessibility and creativity, encouraging kids to split their high-tech time with some tried-and-true outdoor play.
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