Splash Play Areas: The Evolution of the Sprayground

Key Design Considerations in Interactive Aquatic Play

By Stephen Hamelin


s the popularity of interactive aquatic play areas continues to grow, aquatic designers, architects, city officials, home developers, resorts and campgrounds recognize the undisputable value they offer to the community. Providing exciting aquatic play results in a positive experience at every level, be it socially, architecturally or simply from the very essence of learning through play.

Fifteen years ago, aquatic play attractions were found mainly in commercial waterparks in the form of large, multi-level, thematic structures. Some smaller elements were found in the shallow end of swimming pools but were limited to a few play apparatuses such as a water umbrella. Today, aquatic play is featured in prominent places such as city parks, recreational centers, resorts and campgrounds.

This trend did not happen overnight—for over 10 years manufacturers have been developing a concept referred to as zero-depth aquatic play.

Specifically designed to bring the joy and recreational value of aquatic play to almost any recreational space, one of the objectives of the "splashpad" was to bring an element of the commercial waterpark experience to places like neighborhood parks, home development communities, camps and campgrounds.

The focus was on the city park application where such amenities as playgrounds, basketball courts and sports fields provided recreation for the community. With shrinking recreational budgets and outdated swimming pools, cities in North America were desperate for a solution to provide their citizens with aquatic recreation. The solution needed to be low in capital and operating cost, provide safe fun under minimal supervision and, of course, fit in aesthetically with the environment.

To address capital cost, the splashpad design used affordable play products that could be combined and scaled to respect available budgets. From an operational standpoint, automation and user-activation was incorporated to minimize cost. To provide safe products in potentially unsupervised areas, manufacturers adopted the standards developed for playgrounds for public use (ASTM F15 1487). The aesthetic component was heavily influenced by playground equipment. Most first-generation splashpads were comprised of a combination of arches, spray posts, canes and other rectilinear shapes

A few years ago, a conscious decision was made to push interactive water in a new direction in which motion and the concept of living, organic features were keys. Products were designed to be visually appealing in ways that would reach out to designers and clients, but more than that, there was an emphasis on developing features that provided fun and excitement while meeting the needs of children to develop physically, emotionally, socially and even educationally.

Before long, the intricacies involved in achieving a real balance between form and function became apparent.

A great deal of time and effort went into studying the behaviors of children in aquatic play environments. We watched them at play and cross-referenced our observations with child-development theory. After studying several aquatic play areas, we found the age group under 5 years old seemed to be disregarded. With all the excitement of dumping water and spraying water cannons, toddlers seemed intimidated and remained on the periphery or in the arms of their parents. Although play products were designated for children in this age group, they were often positioned next to products that encouraged high-energy play and often attracted young teenagers.

Another important observation involved the time-of-play factor. This is a term used to describe the length of time or level of frequency that children will interact with play products. Every new splashpad installation generates an immense amount of excitement for the community. The novelty of aquatic play will have a positive impact on the environment. The life expectancy of these projects is often between 15 and 20 years, and it is important that in time the level of excitement does not deplete. The excitement can be preserved by maximizing the various play opportunities.

A splashpad filled with large spraying palm trees and water arches may meet the aesthetic criteria for a project, but will offer little in terms of play opportunity. These types of results were becoming more and more frequent. Product selection was heavily weighted toward aesthetics or personal preference of the clients and/or designers with little emphasis placed on play value. With no regulations and little experience for many designers and clients, these oversights were imminent.

Recognizing the gap in regulations, standards and design guidelines for zero-depth aquatic play, we undertook the exercise of developing a philosophy for effective design. With the experience gained from thousands of installations, feedback from customers, observations and interviews with users and consultation with designers, a philosophy was formulated to assist customers and designers in their quest to design effective splashpads.

This philosophy is based on recognizing that any effective play area provides a variety of play opportunities for the intended users. Splashpads, for the most part, are intended for users of all age groups and abilities. We first defined various types of play based on the spirit of the game, skill development. For example, play events such as teams of water cannons create a spirit of competitive and cooperative play. Although there are various types of play that require different levels of physical development and various skills, water is always the common element. The approach resulted in three splashpad areas that take into account varying ages and skills.

The first, the "toddler bay," serves to introduce infants and toddlers to the interactive water-play environment and features above-grade devices scaled down to a level that's not intimidating to the very young. In other words, there aren't any buckets pouring torrents of water from on high. Instead, there are compact features that might completely escape the attention of older children or adults (and perhaps even designers).

This approach emerged from the observation that small children have a significantly different level of attention to detail. They readily respond to slight differences in water temperature, for example, or to subtle variations of depth and flow. They are also captivated by the differences between a gentle misting spray compared to a gentle laminar flow or soft cascade—things we tend to overlook as adults.

This may seem simple—and in concept it is—but achieving these subtly distinctive effects and controlling water flows in these ways requires deliberate attention on the part of suppliers and designers and vision on the part of clients, which may be why these details are so often absent from interactive installations.

The next area, called the "family bay," encourages cross-generational play. An adult, for example, might pick up a small child and walk through a series of dumping buckets or a spraying arch or loop. This isn't a high-energy play area, but instead encourages socializing in a casual walk-through, park-like experience.

The third area, the "teen bay," is where older kids experience high-energy play—water fights, heavy flows of water and basically a good soaking. One of the keys here is developing systems that encourage and require teamwork and friendly competition. In one feature, for example, a flag rises as kids cooperate and cover ground sprays around its base. In order to make the flag rise to its full height, a bunch of kids have to work together.

These bays can be applied in pads of all sizes, from waterparks to community aquatic centers. Regardless of project scope or scale, the three-level approach requires the supplier and the designer to consider systems from the child's perspective—and that is a ticket to success.


Stephen Hamelin is the president and founder of Vortex Aquatic Structures International Inc., a privately held company with over 13 years of experience in designing and manufacturing interactive aquatic play equipment for children of all ages. Founded on the principles of trust, integrity, value and above all, fun, Vortex's mission is to transform the world of aquatic play by creating safe, yet thrilling environments for children of all abilities. For more information, visit www.vortex-intl.com.

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