Planning Pleasing Playgrounds
By Richard Zowie
For many families, spring represents a time to partake of that warm-weather American ritual: heading to the nearest playground. It's a place where parents can relax and chat with their friends while their children can work off pent-up winter energy by slipping down slides, crawling through tubes, climbing chains and platforms or riding on a glide.
As communities grow, many find themselves working to keep up with the needs of growing families. This means building new playgrounds or refurbishing or expanding existing ones. And if you think that's an easy process that's as quick as snapping your fingers, think again.
Those who build playgrounds or have either had playgrounds built or refurbished say that it all starts with finding out what parents and children alike want. Stacey French-Lee, program director for Georgia State University's Lanette L. Suttles Child Development Center in Atlanta, said that when they recently refurbished their playground, they implemented some of the feedback they received. Gone are the sandy landing surfaces, which have given way to synthetic turf and rubberized matting. French-Lee said that the parents will probably appreciate the changes the most.
"They told us the children had been taking sand home in their shoes, getting it in the car and scratching up their houses' wooden floors," she said.
Having a rubbery surface also comes in handy as an effective cushion in case a child falls while at play.
"[The rubbery surface] is very safe and soft, especially in the preschool area," said Joni Scarbrough, public relations coordinator for Newnan Utilities in Newnan, Ga. (about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta), of Newnan Utilities' Carl Miller Park. (The utility owns the property that the park is on.) "If they run and fall, they don't get hurt."
French-Lee added that they also put in some changes to encourage children's artistic side, such as Plexiglas play panels that can be used as a dry-erase board to paint on.
When it comes to assessing what parents and children want, it's important to remember that what they want in a playground can greatly differ.
"They each have their own unique view of the world," said John McConkey, product marketing manager at a Minnesota-based manufacturer of playground systems and equipment, which also assesses market and customer needs, with a focus on product development and new product launches. He noted that parents generally like something that's environmentally friendly, age-appropriate, aesthetically pleasing, safe, clean and well-maintained.
"If they bring kids, they want to know they can let their kids go off and play and explore on their own, with supervision," McConkey added. "Kids, on the other hand, are captivated by what's new, different, challenging, exciting and thrilling. They are attracted also by aesthetics and sense of the amount of relative risk they can manage. I think kids want to push their limits and grow and stretch themselves."
Being challenged tends to be part of the learning process, he explained. Some kids tend to prefer using equipment in a way it wasn't necessarily intended to create more of a challenge, and they also like things that are moving and not stationary. Moving parts tend to stimulate more tactile sensors.
Scott Hausler, director of parks and recreation for Claremont, N.H., agreed that this is something kids really like. "It keeps them engaged, challenges them and gives them the opportunity to challenge themselves," he said. "I think that's what they're looking for. Not just a set of swings and a slide, but how it's laid out and gives a child the opportunity to climb, hang, swing themselves and exercise their abilities."
Rick Maynard, director of parks, recreation and seniors department for Guilford, Conn., said that while developing their imaginations and special-thinking skills, parents and kids alike enjoy playgrounds because of the exercise involved. "Kids can get fitness in a totally fun atmosphere," he explained.
Taking into consideration what parents and children want in a playground is just the beginning of the process. Contemplating many ideas and then implementing them are big steps that can make the difference between successful, busy playgrounds and stagnant playgrounds with little activity due to poor designs, bad locations or not-so-friendly environmental assessments.
Some places end up building two playgrounds, each focused on a specific age group. Young children may find activities for older children to be over their own heads, while older children will probably find younger activities to be too simplistic and unchallenging.
Vicki Feeney, director of community service and superintendent of recreation for Sea Isle City, N.J., said it's important to make sure playgrounds contain age-group-appropriate activities. There at the Garden State playground, the play events are separated into ages 2 to 5 and then 6 to 12.
Scarbrough said that one of their playgrounds is for the younger children while the other is for the older. "We thought this was important, and a lot of thought went into it," she said. "We asked questions like, 'What are preschoolers able to do?' and came up with smaller slides that are easier to crawl up on. A 2-year-old moves around differently than a 12-year-old."
Once you have playgrounds that meet the needs of your target youth, make sure your playground is compliant with federal regulations, Feeney noted. Specifically, the regulations include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the guidelines established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). "Also, when choosing the playground components, focus on events that will strengthen and enhance the body while children are playing," she said.
Safety is a strong consideration even when planning even a small home-improvement project, and playgrounds are definitely no exception. French-Lee said that there's a wide array of safety issues to consider: making sure the rubberized matting is safe, no sharp edges in the materials, no splinters in wood, making sure that the structures to be climbed are age-appropriate for the height of the children, and so on.
"Some [rubber mats] get too hot in the summer and burn kids," she explained. "Also, if you look for high quality, make sure there are a variety of activities in playground—bounce balls, pedal bikes, jumping, skipping and running. These are important for the development of motor skills."
Besides meeting safety requirements, successful playgrounds depend heavily on community support. Nothing can eliminate a possible playground more quickly than neighbors or other locals who don't want it in their area.
Maynard recalled how Guilford's proposed playground was to be built near the shores of Long Island Sound (Guilford is located in south-central Connecticut), and how getting community support was a challenge. Some property owners were concerned about how the playground would impact their own properties; being able to have an unblocked view of the water was one of their big concerns.
"It ended up being quite a task for us," Maynard recalled. "We worked to get support from the planning and zoning commission. Some neighbors initially didn't want it since they had a quiet life on the beach, even though it's a public beach."
Eventually, Maynard and other officials were able to get the support they needed, but it wasn't easy. The neighbors didn't want the playground to stand out visually, so the bright primary colors that tend to appeal more to children were scrapped. Instead, they used colors that matched those of the natural plants in the area. Also, the playground's components had to be produced by a recognized playground manufacturer.
Hausler said that interviewing vendors that sell various playground products and getting them to propose designs is helpful, since doing so helps you determine which vendors' products will best fit the needs of the playground. Then, you develop the public process and put the proposals before the community.
"The planning process also includes funding and fundraising that really determine your next step regarding the type of playground you can install," Hausler said. If money is a problem, none of the other issues will matter.
Feeney said that it is crucial to develop a budget so that you know what you can spend. Once you get a budget, work within it. "Develop conceptual designs, prepare public bidding contracts for installation and set a timeline for completion," she added.
McConkey said you have to be very careful when planning the budget. Being careless or too quick can lead to very unpleasant surprises down the road. "You can easily have cost overruns," he said. "If you're phasing a playground, make sure you allow space and be flexible in the budget for subsequent phases."
Setting a budget, of course, begins with acquiring the funds needed for the playground project and learning how much you have to work with. Scarbrough said that because her company is a municipal utility company that provides water, sewer services and electricity, they largely financed the playground project (including completely financing the main park) and provided the land. Local donations contributed part of the money needed to build the park's Kids' Castle.
From grants and government funds to local donations, there are plenty of sources to help fund a playground. Guilford's playground was bonded. French-Lee said that the $110,000 renovation project for her center's 16 year-old playground came in from revenues from state contributions.
Hausler said that money for his playground came from various sources: federal grants and state grants along with funds from the local municipal budget.
"There are also fundraising efforts within the local community or school system—depending on where the playground is going," he said.
Maynard said that fundraising was one way in which their playground came about. Their small playground was getting old and rusted, and a local resident led an effort to upgrade the equipment. She did a lot of fundraising and raised most of the funds privately. This, along with the work done by volunteers, helped to make things happen.
Even with financing secured, in this imperfect world, complications are far from uncommon when trying to build or refurbish a playground.
French-Lee said it's important to remember that things have to be designed for various ages. "One structure that's appropriate for a 4-year-old may not be for a 1-year-old," she said. "You think of how to make climbing structures (for the older children) not accessible to younger children."
Feeney noted that site supervision is imperative to ensure that subcontractors stay on task and that they're held to deadlines they propose. Otherwise, delays are possible and can result in problems down the road.
Sometimes, nature itself can propose the biggest complications. For example, a major problem can arise if water tables are misjudged. McConkey said that failing to get an environmental inspection and thoroughly analyzing the site can have bad repercussions, such as project delays or ill-afforded increases in cost. "It's better to do all the homework up front than to be caught by surprise," he said.
McConkey described a playground where "…the site was thought to be ideal, and no engineering inspection was done. They drilled holes and found the water table was too high, and there was sub-ground-level water. They had to figure out a whole different type of installation plan."
Maynard faced a similar problem when Guilford built their playground. Instead of building from the ground up, they built into the ground and soon encountered muck. They ended up having to pump out a lot of water as well as cleaning out the dredge. "Part of the planning process is knowing what's below the ground as well as above," he said.
McConkey also remembers one New York playground in Brooklyn that posed a unique problem. The playground overlooked the Brooklyn Promenade, and the landscape architect selected the trees they wanted. As it turned out, that particular species of tree has two versions: a male and female. One version produced a fruit with a strong, pungent odor that attracted bees.
In the springtime a big, potentially dangerous problem arose.
"There were bees all around," McConkey recalled. "You have to determine how you can engage the neighbors and the community in a constructive way to help them feel involved and help them recognize there are certain things that should be left up to professionals to decide. Some community groups selected equipment that wasn't age-appropriate for kids, and the parks department had to reconcile this. There are also liability issues. Dealing with the communities can be delicate and takes experience."
Some parks and other facilities looking to build playgrounds might find themselves in trouble and facing long-term delays if they work with people who aren't licensed professionals. Hausler noted that it's crucial to have a licensed landscape architect to evaluate the site. By doing this, you can determine whether your plan will actually work, as well as how it will work in the future if you want to make changes or additions.
"Make sure what you do doesn't impact future growth in the park or playground itself," Hausler added. "This can stall the process and stall the issues."
While a playground with great amenities results in high traffic, another factor that can bring about a lot of attention is its visual appeal. A playground with bright colors is likely to attract children, while others, such as the Guilford, Conn., beachfront residents, prefer their playground, with colors and designs that blend in with the local area and don't potentially hurt nearby property values. Some places like to be eye-catching with visuals aside from their color scheme. Playgrounds in hot climates might try to appeal more by featuring roofs or shade elements.
"We also get into theme designs," McConkey said. "Then, aesthetics become a very important attribute."
One growing trend, he said, tends to be in destination park environments. These focus on cultural, historical, geological or other local connections to the place. McConkey noted that in Skinner Butte Park in Eugene, Ore., there's a geological formation of fingerlike columns of basalt rock. Needless to say, this is a rock-climber's paradise.
"In the concept of the playground at the location, they wanted to emulate that," he said. "We created custom rock climbing with finger formations. Kids can climb on playgrounds the way older guys climb on a wall."
There's also the playground in Peoria, Ariz., that carries a theme of the agriculture that's been in the area for more than 100 years. The farm theme features barns, animals, climbers, windmills and silos. Another town has a mining theme. Other playgrounds feature children's gardens, interactive zoos and even public art.
Scarbrough said that at their park, musical instruments and chimes were built at the Kids' Castle. These instruments are made out of wood and PVC pipe to make musical sounds.
The aesthetic appeal that goes into a playground depends ultimately on the wants and needs of the community. Hausler said that the unique character of each site depends a lot on how much input you receive on the potential designs during the initial stages of planning.
The unique character can result in unusual features and designs. French-Lee said that their playground's perimeter features a bike path. The path even has "Stop" and "Yield" signs—perhaps a cute way of getting children ready for the day when they'll trade in their tricycles and bicycles for motorized vehicles.
McConkey said that they use equipment that's both very innovative and reminiscent of new concepts in equipment design. "Our equipment engages children physically and intellectually," he said.
Scarbrough said that their playground features security on site. During busy times, they'll have two to three people there. They usually have the security in golf carts and buggies to help people unload their cars also.
Some parks, such as the one Maynard is affiliated with, feature stone dust paths for parents to push strollers.
Kids' health, especially when it comes to rising rates of childhood obesity, is becoming a strong issue of concern in America. The solution to improving their health, McConkey said, is through physical activity—something innovative new play systems can offer. Such activity results in elevated heart rates and improvements in muscle tone.
"It's important for kids to try to overcome some of the negative effects of their lifestyles," he explained. "We try to get them off the couch and onto the playground and become healthy and active. This encourages balance and coordination in a constantly changing position in relation to gravity. They lean into a net climber in a way that supports weight and then lean away from it and use different muscles. They can then balance and counterbalance against gravity and use free-form play and their own experience."
So how do playgrounds now differ from those from a decade or two ago? It usually boils down to one word: safety.
"When you think back to the type of swings and slides we used to have, there have been a lot of things from a safety standpoint that we consider now that they didn't then," Scarbrough said. "Metal getting hot on slides when sun comes out is a good example."
Safety has indeed been one of the biggest differences, French-Lee said, noting that children used to ride in the back of their parents' trucks. Things have changed now in terms of the consideration of safety: equipment height, material used, metal, screws, wood to be used. "It wasn't an issue before, but now we really look into it—especially for the daycare," she said.
Along with improved safety standards, there are also liability issues to consider. Hausler remembered that playgrounds used to be built atop grassy surfaces. These days, such a hard surface would be unthinkable.
Maynard noted that some playgrounds used to be built on asphalt—again, not a chance these days. Others had jungle gyms and merry-go-rounds that now would be considered dangerous; kids could fall off, get thrown off or get hit in the head.
What does the future hold for how playgrounds are built, expanded and refurbished? That's a question for tomorrow's parents, communities and safety standards.
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