Play Date

Trends in Playground Equipment

By Hayli Morrison


swing isn't just a swing anymore, but can double as a wind instrument. And these days, a ladder isn't the only way to climb; rock walls are also du jour. Perhaps the most significant playground design change is in physical educational curriculum, where slides and jungle gyms are now every bit as likely to be employed to get kids active as that infamous climbing rope.

Altogether, playgrounds have evolved a long way from the first half of the 20th century, when they were dominated by manufactured steel equipment and concrete or packed dirt surfacing. In the 1950s and '60s, playground elements slowly began to take on more imaginative themes, though these still did not fully engage children.

"The changes reflected the changes in our culture, such as the space program," said Dr. Joe Frost, Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas in Austin. "They developed space-themed and Western-themed aspects, and many of these were of more interest to adults than children."

In the 1970s, wooden playground construction became the hot new trend, until it was discovered that wood required more maintenance. Thus, experimentation began with new materials, most notably plastic. Over time, developments in the industry made these new materials more viable and affordable.

"Plastics weren't even considered years ago. Now some of our plastics are as strong as steel," said Teri Hendy, president of SiteMasters Inc.

"I remember years ago, 'Oh, we'll never have a single-piece spiral slide. It's just too expensive,'" added Ken Kutska, executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute. "You look now at how many manufacturers have that and what's gone into making them more durable."

He added, "The industry went through a sort of copycat era, and still are to some extent. Some are investing in research and development, and if they discover something, it doesn't take long for it to spread to the general marketplace. You see someone come out with something new, and next year everybody's got it."

One trend seen currently in many playgrounds is a more basic design, with less of a risk element. That trend, however, is more consumer-driven than industry-driven, according to Hendy.

"When we get accused of 'dumbing down' playgrounds, it's not often the manufacturer who's doing that. It's the consumer," she said. "They're concerned about liability and maintenance."


Unfortunately, funding cutbacks in a tight U.S. economy have been another primary agent of change in modern playgrounds, particularly on school campuses. Frost, Hendy and Kutska agreed that recreation is further hampered by additional pressure on schools to perform well in government-mandated high-stakes testing. Altogether, very little time or money is left over for free play during the school day, partially contributing to a virtual epidemic of childhood obesity.

Hence, the Voice of Play initiative, launched by the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). The goal of this initiative is to reach out to communities, teachers, parents and children to stress the urgency of childhood recreation. The initiative offers a "Play Pledge" for parents to sign, promising to provide their children with at least one hour of outdoor play each day at home or school. The Play Pledge even suggests specific outdoor activities to get kids moving. To encourage hands-on involvement, Voice of Play offers Parent and Community Group Kits with resources like playground safety checklists and tips for building a successful playground.

It's a timely initiative, in light of the fact that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of overweight school-age children (between 6 and 11 years old) is about 17 percent.

"The main goal of Voice of Play is to educate about the importance of play," said Lesley Sillaman, a spokesperson for the IPEMA initiative. "We want to make sure kids are getting out to play as much as they can. It's not a luxury—it's a necessity, from our point of view, and we use research to back that up."

Until funding loosens up, some schools are getting creative by multi-tasking. There is an increasing integration of recreation with school curriculum, in subjects ranging from physical education to science and even music.

Some manufacturers of play equipment have gone so far as to create play elements that can be integrated with the school curriculum. One manufacturer provides curriculum suggestions that can be used with its newest playsysten. The curriculum was created in conjunction with the National Program for Playground Safety and provides step-by-step instructions for the play events to help kids achieve defined results. Games and activities geared toward various fitness levels are also suggested, along with information for kids with disabilities.

"It talks specifically to help the kids achieve results for beginner, intermediate and advanced levels," said Tina Spritka, marketing associate with the Wisconsin-based manufacturer. "The kids can become fit and more confident with themselves, and they can use feedback to create new ways to use the equipment."

The playsystem is geared toward the 5-to-12 age range, with the goal of making physical fitness a way of life early on.

"I think if we start off at this age with the physical aspect and get the kids moving, then they can learn more about diet and nutrition later," Spritka said. "This is an entry-level way of getting them on the right path to a healthy lifestyle."

Surface Options

The latest playground equipment may be top-of-mind as you plan your new playgrounds or decide to upgrade your existing play areas. But you also need to give careful consideration to what goes beneath the equipment. Appropriate playground safety surfacing is critical to ensure children do not get injured unnecessarily.

Statistics show that nearly 70 percent of all playground injuries are related to falls to the surface, according to the National Program for Playground Safety. Which surfaces does the program recommend?

Both loose-fill and synthetic surfaces are acceptable. Typical loose-fill surfaces that you can consider include hardwood wooden fiber, shredded rubber, sand and pea gravel. Bear in mind that the appropriate depth of loose fill needs to be maintained to ensure safety. Synthetic surfaces include rubber tiles, rubber mats and poured-in-place surfacing.

Before you make your decision, NPPS recommends asking the following questions:

  • Does the surface meet the ASTM standards and CPSC guidelines?
  • Does the surface have a proven track record in a similar environment and climate?
  • Is the surface readily available?
  • What are the maintenance costs and requirements?
  • Will it meet the playground's needs in terms of drainage, durability and accessibility?

For more information about playground safety recommendations, visit


When it comes to learning on the playground, physical education isn't the only subject getting attention. Music education, another area seeing funding cuts in schools, is increasingly prevalent on playgrounds. Trendy musical elements are unique and fun, drawing kids to unwittingly learn about music, even when there is no teacher around.

One play equipment manufacturer recently debuted a line of playground instruments, accompanied by a standards-based "Playbook." Based on traditional African and Caribbean instruments like bongos and the djembe, this play equipment helps children learn about rhythmic, tonal and vocal music in a colorful play environment. The Playbook helps teachers take the learning experience to the next level with activities that teach pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students specifically how to use the instruments in a freestyle or structured group setting.

"Each and every one of the instruments has a story behind it," said Tom Norquist, senior vice president of the Alabama-based company that manufactures the musical play events. "The ashiko and djembe drums were used as communication devices. All of these instruments have historical meaning. The shapes and forms are very close to the originals, so the kids are fascinated by them. They ask what it is and how you use it, so it's really fun to go into a play environment and show the kids how to do that."

The concept resulted in part from studies of children on playgrounds—specifically, how children interacted with musical panels featuring things like xylophone or piano keys. The discovery: Panels weren't working effectively to teach children.

"In studying children, we did not find that kids would stick around and do anything there of any consequence, so they became just noisemakers," Norquist said.

Following that discovery, the company held a product rollout event for its new interpretation of musical playground elements in 2008. Norquist recalled the enthusiastic reaction of children when they saw the unique, colorful instruments.

"Within about five minutes, they had some rhythm going," he said. "So then we played a game where the other kids could move on the other playground equipment in coordination with the rhythm. It was so much fun and so engaging, and truly intergenerational."


An Aspen, Colorado-based play equipment manufacturer is also working to integrate music with playgrounds, though in a slightly subtler, "more than meets the eye" fashion. Instead of adding auxiliary musical and sensory components to an existing playground, this company believes music can be the playground.

Co-founders Robert Tobias and Monty Abbott were college friends, both products of the 1960s culture and both career artisans. Their desire to shake up traditional playgrounds first took root in 2003, and they have been developing and patenting unique inventions ever since. All products are created in conjunction with major play equipment manufacturers to ensure compliance with safety standards.

"We happen to have found a niche in the industry that nobody has really serviced in a concerted way," Tobias said. "It was a creative idea to integrate music into the playground. People use the word 'interactive,' but our use of the word 'interactive' eclipses everyone else in the industry."

At first glance, the line consists of brightly colored swings, seesaws and seating, but a closer look reveals much more. A swing, for instance, features handholds that serve as wind instruments. By placing their fingers over three holes in the flute-like handholds, children can play simple tunes. In one of the swingset posts, a mechanical air compressor operates in conjunction with the swing's motion. The compressor charges an air system that forces air through the swing's tubing and out the handhold's air holes, which are tuned to notes of the scale.

"We originally started thinking just in terms of music, but very quickly realized there were more sensory uses that could be addressed with our equipment," Abbott said.

Enter a seesaw that engages the senses of sound, sight and touch while encouraging cooperation, teamwork and social interaction among children. The seesaw transforms a traditional playground concept, patterning it after the ancient aboriginal rainstick. Running the length of the seesaw is a clear, polycarbonate tube filled with colorful balls and chimes that create three different notes. As children move the seesaw up and down, they can watch the balls move, hear the resulting sound and even feel slight vibrations in the handholds.

"The children are engaged visually, in terms of watching the balls strike the chimes, and there's a whole cooperation element involved in getting the balls to strike the chimes," Abbott said.

Slightly more eccentric are parabolic reflecting dishes attached to sitting benches, which are sold in pairs. When placed across from each other, they allow sound to reflect back and forth.

"There's a lot for a kid to learn about sound waves and how they get focused," Tobias said. "We find our products appear a lot on school playgrounds, where the science teacher may go out and conduct a science class" based on one of the play elements.

Work It Out

In addition to playgrounds targeting kids ranging from preschool up to high school, savvy park planners can also find equipment that can get all ages active.

Many playground and fitness equipment manufacturers have also brought to market exercise equipment that is appropriate for placement outdoors in park settings or along fitness trails.

You can cluster the stations together to create an outdoor gym—put it next to a playground, and you've given parents a way to get a workout in while they're kids exercise. Or you can locate stations along a trail, which will encourage your parks' users to add specific exercises to their daily walk or run.


Speaking of science, it also is fast becoming a star of the playground in more ways than one. With a societal shift toward eco-awareness, natural elements are in greater demand than ever before, both in terms of playground design and building materials.

"The fact is, for centuries, nature was children's playground because they had access to the rocks, the streams, the trees," Frost said. "But now we have most kids growing up in cities. How can you bring sufficient nature in and provide—merely through nature features—all of the same options? We need to have features in our parks and schools that will allow children to have all those advantages."

Traditional playground elements are still considered important to challenge children to grow and stretch their physical capabilities. This, however, could be mixed with green spaces, butterfly gardens and greenhouses, Frost pointed out.

"If you have recess and exclude the playground equipment, you see a lot of interesting and wonderful features of nature, but if you're ready to develop the social and physical skills, you need both," Frost said. "That's the kind of balance we're talking about here. History tells us we need balance in children's lives."

Two projects in Frost's hometown of Austin are prime examples of a good balance between nature and traditional playground elements. Redeemer Lutheran School used a half-acre of land to incorporate three playgrounds with a butterfly garden, wildflower wetland, and vegetable and herb gardens—the produce from which is fed to the schoolchildren or donated to Austin Meals on Wheels. Nearby, the 700-acre Mueller sustainable community development, on the site of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, features greenways and jogging paths alongside playgrounds and water recreation areas.

"We're seeing a type of 21st-century movement that brings balance back into people's lives so they can have access to nature again," Frost said. "The need is really severe. We can combat that, but there's got to be more to it than smelling the flowers. There's got to be a place where children can be active for an hour a day."

For nature play to truly take hold, there has to be a commitment among communities and recreation managers, experts say. Hendy expressed frustration with one project in particular, when she was asked to integrate play elements with a nearby creek to help children learn about the natural environment.

"My plans came back, and anything natural had been eliminated," she said. "All of the elements of the earth that made the playground unique—the water, the sand—were gone because they didn't want to maintain it."

Though time-consuming and potentially more costly, there are tremendous rewards in creating and maintaining nature elements in play environments. It presents exercise and learning opportunities, but can also have indirect healing effects. For that reason, Dell Children's Hospital found a home in Austin's Mueller community, where nature takes center stage.

"It can ease depression and help children heal faster," Frost said. "It tends to have an effect on their imagination, their cognitive mind, their appreciation of nature, and it has therapeutic effects."

Encouraging Age-Appropiate Play

For kids, there can be a competitive element to playgrounds. Play pushes them to stretch their physical capabilities, though it can also lead to injury. Because of this, playground equipment is designed to ensure each age level is steered toward age-appropriate activities. For instance, a rock-climbing wall may be accessible by all ages, but footholds and handholds are laid out at such a pattern and distance that each age group can find a travel route that safely suits their physical capabilities.

"Manufacturers also are using what they know about anthropometrics of children by creating equipment that is not usable by children of a younger age group," said Ken Kutska, executive director of the International Playground Safety Institute, citing the example of a three-dimensional climbing net seen on a playground in Australia.

"It was obviously designed for the school-aged group, but during the day the only kids there with moms were preschool-aged," he said. "We watched some of them be able to use the lower third of the net, but because of the way it was designed, they wouldn't go further. They couldn't quite reach to pull their bodies higher, so they'll probably wait until they're a bit older. With good design, we can provide those challenges and opportunities, but try to make sure we comply with the safety requirements."


Playgrounds also help ease depression in adults, particularly wounded military veterans who return home and find it difficult to play with their children to the same extent as before. With features like wide ramps, slide transfers and poured-in-place or tiled rubber surfacing in key areas, inclusive playgrounds bring new hope to military bases like Fort Campbell near Clarksville, Tenn. As is common practice, grant money was used for the playground—in Fort Campbell's case, a sizeable grant from the Cracker Barrel Foundation. Phil Garito said the groundbreaking idea to put such a playground on a base garnered attention from national media as well as other military bases.

"We said not only will an inclusive playground allow children with special needs the ability to go out and play with their friends, but it will also allow soldiers who are coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan, who have lost a limb or have some other impairment, to engage with their children in a playground setting," said Phil Garito, asset manager for Fort Campbell Family Housing. "I think other military posts are trying to emulate what was done here at Fort Campbell."

Grandparents are another demographic aided by inclusive playgrounds, according to Fred Leone, CEO of Boundless Playgrounds Inc., a national nonprofit organization dedicated to helping communities create extraordinary inclusive playgrounds.

"Nowadays, there are more grandparents providing childcare and helping to raise their grandchildren," he said. "Our inclusive playgrounds help seniors with limited mobility to more easily navigate the playscape so they can attend to and play with their grandchildren."

Aside from special swings, the differences between standard and inclusive playgrounds are subtle to the untrained eye. But for people with disabilities, it can mean the difference between participant and spectator, or looking down from the top versus looking up from the ground.

"We have found that children with disabilities who require use of a mobility device have never gotten that perspective of getting higher and seeing the horizon," Leone said. "It's really very exciting when they experience that for the first time. It's also very integral to our philosophy of inclusion. Certainly the highest points of play are often the most attractive to children, so we certainly wouldn't want to exclude them from that."

While the primary difference is in the playground's surfacing and layout, it can be as subtle as cozy spaces where kids can gather to converse and play. This feature appeals to all children, but especially children diagnosed with autism, providing much-needed social interaction in the process. About 7 million children, or roughly one in 10, benefit directly from inclusive playgrounds. That's why Boundless Playgrounds has teamed with Hasbro/PLAYSKOOL and CVS Caremark to provide grants that help communities cover extra costs involved in making a playground inclusive. In its 11-year history, the organization has constructed more than 140 inclusive playgrounds, according to Leone.

"It is just remarkable to see the impact on the child and the parents. They are so happy that their child is able to engage with their peers in what is a traditional childhood activity. It can be a very emotional thing," he said, recalling in particular one day at a Long Island playground.

"I met a woman there who had a child who used a wheelchair, and they drove two hours to get to that playground," he said. "Her daughter would ask her to come every weekend, but obviously they couldn't do that. But that's how much it meant to her. You can't overstate the need."

Indeed, there is a function for playgrounds in virtually every area of society—therapy, environmental awareness, education, physical fitness and socialization, to name a few. As society grows and changes, play environments will evolve, too, sometimes even leading the charge toward new discoveries.

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