Nature and Nurture

Trends in Play Design

By Emily Tipping


early a third of the children in this country are either overweight or obese, and a third will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lifetime," she said. "These are children. And in the African-American and Hispanic communities, those numbers climb even higher so that nearly half—OK? —half of the children in those communities are going to suffer that fate."

She added, "This has serious consequences for the immediate and long-term health of individual children and for our national health care system. There are just too many kids that are living a life off of high-calorie food, and they're not getting enough exercise. And in order to stay healthy, children are supposed to get 60 minutes of activity every single day. Now, how many kids in your lives are doing that these days, at least 60 minutes every single day? So that's why we can't underestimate the value of having safe and quality playgrounds in every single community."

Who was the play advocate who spoke these words? First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking at a community build of a playground at San Francisco's Bret Harte Elementary School to kick off a nationwide volunteer initiative.

And Obama knows about the value of play. The White House recently saw its own first playground installed. At the volunteer build in San Francisco, she described the impact of that new play equipment: "…there's nothing like watching kids play. And my kids, they get to swing on the swings, climb on the jungle gym. They're playing—they don't even know they're getting exercise. That's the value of play, and that's what we need to get our kids to do in this community—but we have to provide them with resources to make that happen."

The Bret Harte project, which was planned with the help of national nonprofit KaBOOM!, got kids from the school and surrounding community, parents, seniors and representatives from the local Alzheimer's association together to plan a play space for all stakeholders. The spot marks KaBOOM's first fully intergenerational volunteer-build playground, and in addition to top-notch play equipment, it will feature an edible garden with a farmer's market stand, allowing kids and seniors from the community to sell veggies and raise money for the school.

The project highlights three trends that have taken a strong hold of play across the country: getting more children engaged in physical activity through play, improving accessibility for people of all abilities and geographies, and using play spaces to link children with the natural world.

In a recent article titled "Designing and Building Healthy Places for Children" in the International Journal of Environment and Health (Vol. 2, Nos. 3/4, 2008), authors Andrew Dannenberg, Howard Frumkin and Arthur Wendel write, "A health-promoting built environment for children can be distilled to a few themes." First, it provides protection from injury risk and limits exposure to pollutants and disease. Second, it "…gives children opportunities for physical activity, play and contact with nature." And third, it uses sustainable practices to reduce the impact on the environment.

Playground manufacturers have long been committed to safety, and there's recently been a big push toward more sustainable manufacturing, but if you take the second part of that statement, you have a handle on some trends that have converged in playground development recently: a trend toward playgrounds that get kids active, a trend toward ensuring more kids have access to play, and a trend toward incorporating natural elements into play spaces.

Nurturing Bodies and Minds

There's really no underestimating the power of play. With the rate of childhood and adolescent obesity reaching what some have called "epidemic" proportions over the past two decades, we all know how important it is to encourage kids to get more active. Obesity is a contributing factor in many of the preventable chronic illnesses that burden our health care system. And according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, play is "the single most effective strategy for increasing physical activity among children."

The problem is that many kids don't play. They either don't have access to places where they can play safely, or they are stuck in schools and daycare facilities that emphasize the classroom over time for free play. Take childcare centers as just one example. Nearly 75 percent of children between 3 and 6 years old are in child care centers, and many of them aren't getting the exercise they need, according to a focus group study by Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The reasons for the lack of activity vary. Some childcare providers explained that parents pressure them to prioritize classroom time for learning over outdoor time for motor development. Other providers said the fear of injury or the cost of playground equipment and ongoing maintenance are barriers to providing more activity.

"Childcare providers told us that many parents were more focused on their children learning cognitive skills such as reading, writing and preparing for kindergarten than their participation in recess," said Kristin Copeland, M.D., a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and the study's main author. "And yet childcare providers realized that some of the most valuable lessons in science, nature, cause and effect, and even important social skills such as problem-solving and peer negotiation all come from playing outdoors on the playground."

The elimination of play and recess—not just in childcare facilities, but also at schools across the country—comes at a heavy cost, as children not only lose out on the chance to develop critical social, mental and emotional skills, but also miss opportunities to get involved in much-needed daily exercise.

Playground manufacturers have responded to child obesity trends with equipment designed to keep kids moving and active. As Tim Ahern, president of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), and CEO of a playground equipment manufacturer based in Fond du Lac, Wis., stated in a recent newsletter, "The earlier we learn to play at exercise rather than work at it, the more likely we are to form lifelong fitness habits."

"A prevalent trend in the playground industry is the concept of continuous, 'deckless' play," said Lindsay Richardson, director of marketing and sales administration for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based playground manufacturer, "which is a great way to increase the physical activity on the playground."

Many companies have been building such playsystems, calling them "deckless," "spherical," "gyroscopic" and many other adjectives, but what they all add up to is heightened opportunities for children to innovate and get active.

And you should not underestimate the power of a play space to get kids active. Schools, daycare facilities, camps, parks and others can partner with their play equipment manufacturers to offer creative new program options they might never have considered before to encourage children to break a sweat, and maybe learn a thing or two in the process.

"We use the saying, 'Play is a full-bodied experience,' Richardson said. "It makes a lot of sense that kids learn better when they are outdoors moving while they are learning. We have had a lot of community centers and afterschool programs interested in our kit."

The kit she's referring to offers program ideas and ways to get kids active on the playground, and it's another trend seen among many play equipment manufacturers.

Anne-Marie Spencer, director of merchandising and marketing communications at a playground manufacturer based in Fort Payne, Ala., said her company is having great success with its curriculum, which allows facility owners to hold fitness classes on the playground. "The program meets NASPE (National Association for Sport & Physical Education) standards for physical education, so even schools can use it to teach P.E.," she said. "The other benefit is that more kids are engaged at the same time, so they don't spend as much time 'waiting for their turn' as with conventional classes. Best of all, kids of all shapes and fitness levels think the activities are fun, so they are greatly beneficial."

And getting back to the childcare scenario, while many of these fitness-oriented playgrounds are made for the 5- to 12-year-old age group, another playground company has recently introduced a model designed for the younger group of 2- to 5-year-olds. In addition to getting tots active, the playsystem offers another benefit: Because of the clear sight lines, supervision is much simpler.

Don't Forget the Surface

There are a few options when it comes to safety surfacing for your playground, and it's critical that you take this critical component into account during the planning process. After all, according to the CPSC, falls to the surface make up nearly 70 percent of all playground injuries.

Loose-fill materials contained by a retaining edge are a common option. These include things like engineered wood fiber, sand, pea gravel, shredded rubber and more. They are the least expensive and are simple to install, but regular maintenance is required to maintain the proper depth of the material. For example, at the bottom of a slide or underneath swings, the loose fill will get dispersed, so you'll need a team to visit the playground regularly and rake the material back into place.

Tiles and poured-in-place rubber surfaces may be a bit more expensive, but require less maintenance. They're available in many colors, are very durable, and may offer greater accessibility to wheelchair users.

Growing Toward Nature

But play equipment alone may not be all that is needed to encourage these tots to get outdoors and get active. Sometimes a little bit of nature can go a long way toward encouraging children's growth.

"I am not opposed to using traditional equipment," said Vicki Stoecklin, education and child development director for White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group Inc., a Kansas City, Mo.-based firm that designs creative play spaces for children in facilities ranging from childcare centers to schools, parks and beyond. "But what you find if you study how children use the equipment is once they have run or climbed up it and slid down, what is there left to do? Nothing! Children then go on to get interested in the nearby sand pits, rock piles, climbing trees or playing in the forest where they are not only in the shade among trees, but able to better access their powers of creativity. Children use play parts from plants and natural materials as part of their play construct. They need things to move around, change and manipulate as their creativity expands. Did you make a clover necklace when you were a child? Or how about collecting a jar of lightning bugs?"

This echoes a growing grassroots movement that advocates children—and the adults who guide them—to reconnect with nature. Research supports a strong link between children being outdoors in nature and their overall development and psychological well-being. Much of this research has grown out of Richard Louv's 2005 book "Last Child in the Woods," which argued forcefully for the importance of play in nature.

"We have been doing naturalized play spaces for children for 12 years now, and since Louv wrote his book we have seen an increase in the interest level in naturalized spaces for young children," Stoecklin said. "When Richard wrote his book, he contacted us to ask if he could talk about our work since he did not know of too many companies who do what we do. His book has been able to get some national attention on the issue of children's lack of contact with the natural world, and his Children and Nature Network has been instrumental in getting a lot of public interest in the topic."

Parks and recreation leaders, as well as play equipment manufacturers, have been paying attention. Connecting children with nature adds up to a major role for parks and recreation agencies, and it's a role they clearly embrace, according to a recent study conducted jointly by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and a playground manufacturer.

In the study, 96 percent of parks and recreation agencies surveyed agreed that parks and recreation programming should play a role in teaching children about the outdoors and nature, and 95 percent agreed that one role of a parks and recreation agency should be to encourage members of the community to be better environmental stewards. And registering the growing trend toward eco-friendly facilities, 80 percent agreed that in the past five years environmental stewardship has become more important to their department.

Manufacturers have been listening too, and many have adopted greener practices, including recycling and more. (See "Green Up" below to learn more about these efforts.)

But greening the playground, according to Spencer, means more than using recycled and recyclable materials. "We are approaching it from another angle as well with NatureGrounds," she said. "There's an increasing awareness about the need for children to reconnect with nature, and a large body of evidence-based research that shows children's experiences with nature are essential for healthy development, and ensure they foster an appreciation for nature, so that they may grow into the stewards of the environment as adults."

Spencer and Richardson's parent company has worked with the Natural Learning Initiative team at North Carolina State to bring more nature into the spaces where children play. "These play spaces offer the greatest benefits of both the built and living play environment, so that children, families and communities can experience the many benefits of play surrounded by nature," Spencer said.

The program aims to help site owners create more naturalized play spaces that incorporate nature with the built playground environment. "Research has proven that these 'mixed' environments offer the greatest benefits to children, and that in many urban and suburban environments, natural spaces are too remotely located to be of benefit."

Stoecklin's company has long been involved in creating such combined play spaces. She explained that traditional equipment is fine, but it's best when combined with plenty of plant material, both for sensory input and shade.

"We tell clients that if they want a playground they should hire an equipment company," she said. "Our company designs children's play gardens, whether they are located at a childcare center, school, park, children's farm or other recreational location."

The traditional equipment included in these play gardens might include swings, tire swings and climbing structures. Other possibilities include items that can be manipulated to help children learn more about themselves and their environment—items like easels for painting, water, sand and mud tables for manipulating natural elements, musical instruments, stepping stones, dramatic play houses and more. "More naturalized features include recirculating streams, sand play, stream play, hiding bushes, a bush maze, secret forest and gardening areas, Stoecklin added."

Green UP

Many manufacturers have been paying attention to park directors and other facility owners who say they want greener options. As a result, they have adjusted their practices to use more recycled—and recyclable—materials.

If environmental responsibility is a critical part of your mission, look for a playground manufacturer that is ISO 14001 certified. This standard gives the requirements for environmental management systems, and certification verifies that the business is operating in an environmentally sustainable manner.

Many manufacturers also now offer advice on earning credits toward LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) credits from the U.S. Green Building Council.

One company takes its environmental measures another step further by donating a portion of every playground sale to purchase enough trees to offset the carbon dioxide produced while manufacturing that specific playground.

The same company recently conducted a study in partnership with NRPA, which revealed that 96 percent of respondents, from parks and recreation agencies, agreed that parks and recreation agencies should paly a leadership role within municipal government in protecting the environment. But just 68 percent said their agency does a good job of researching and purchasing environmentally preferable products.

What is an environmentally preferable product? One that has "a reduced negative effect or an increased positive effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products that serve the same purpose." These effects could be impacted at any point in the product's lifecycle: raw materials acquisition, production, fabrication, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, reuse, operation, maintenance and disposal.

Making Natural Work

One crucial step when designing playgrounds to include more natural elements is to get as many stakeholders involved in the planning process up front as possible, Stoecklin said, including children. "You always need to involve the user, whether that is a teacher or a family or the child," she said. "You also need to include maintenance and the community. Maintenance can help share information about what might work with their maintenance schedule and maybe what plants have worked in other circumstances. All projects are more successful—either child care, school or park/recreation—if they can involve parents in the design process."

What happens when you don't involve the parents? Potential backlash for your beautifully beneficial new play space. Stoecklin cited as an example a center that had water play inside and added it outside. Parents got upset because of the messier play.

"Even at a childcare center or a public school, what the kids do outside affects the parents," she explained. "When you start making changes, it does affect the parents eventually. They might not have the same values you do. They need to understand that kids need outdoor play, and they need clothes that can get messy. I've watched many directors and how they implement their programs, and even the really good ones maybe haven't involved the parents and there's often a backlash."

To make nature work for you, look beyond the play equipment to the borders and other areas that can incorporate natural elements. For example, an open lawn might encourage children to get involved in a ballgame or a round of tag, while pathways and trails might funnel children toward quieter spaces or alternative activity zones. They also can provide various routes for the local community to access the play area.

Planted areas, whether informal plantings that provide texture, trees that provide shade or more formal gardens that encourage children and others to grow their own veggies and fruits, as in the Bret Harte Elementary project, are also a good idea.

Rocks—real or manufactured—expand the natural look and offer something no kid can resist—climbing!

Stoecklin said it doesn't matter if your play area is a tiny space within an urban streetscape or an expansive space in the countryside—everyone can benefit from more natural play, and everyone can have it.

"We've done little gardens for five or six infants and toddlers all the way to huge gardens for several hundred children at one time," Stoecklin said. "Play gardens can be very appropriate for small spaces, and they are easily and inexpensively done."

If you're concerned about the maintenance requirements of your new, more natural playspace, you can relax. Just remember that, as with any playground project, you should consider maintenance before your play area is built—not after.

"Everything takes maintenance, including concrete and asphalt," Stoecklin said. "In the scheme of things, plant material is fairly inexpensive. Work with local gardeners and Cooperative Extension offices to locate resources for finding native plants. We are not talking about roses and azaleas, but native plants that will only take water for the first couple of years until they are established. Then, unless there is a drought, Mother Nature can take care of it."

Nature-and Play-for All

There's another benefit of providing more natural elements on the playground. It's an improvement for children with disabilities. While they may not be able to reach the highest deck of the traditional playground, in a garden spot, they'll be able to play alongside their peers.

It's critical when planning a new playground to ensure that you follow the ADA guidelines and incorporate the correct number of accessible elements. It's even better when you apply universal design principles like wide ramps and play elements that stimulate the senses to allow kids of all abilities to play together, rather than separately.

Many manufacturers are creating elements that make no distinction between kids with disabilities and others on the playgrounds. Children and adults of all ages can cooperate to make music with some of the new musical instruments found among play elements, and sand and water bowls give everyone a chance to be a "scientist" and "experiment" with natural elements.

According to Stoecklin, careful attention to the way the play environment and play equipment are designed can ensure children with and without disabilities will be able to play right alongside one another.

"That's why we practice universal design," she said, "looking from all perspectives, not just kids in wheelchairs. There are children with visual impairments, Downs syndrome—it's not necessarily wheelchairs. By designing the environment right and the equipment well, you can encourage side-by-side play."

She added that it's also important to get the surface right, because if you have the right equipment but not the right surfacing, your efforts will be in vain.

In Boston Public Schools, where 20 percent of enrolled children receive specialized education for some type of disability, a traditionally designed playground at Harambee Park in Dorchester was recently replaced by the Boston Parks and Recreation and Boundless Playgrounds with a playground that provides access for children of all abilities. The first Boundless Playground for the city, the Harambee Park playground includes ample space for kids of varying degrees of ability to play side-by-side. An elevated gazebo at the playground's center enables children with disabilities to get up high and get a view of the world they rarely get to enjoy. In addition, the playground includes play panels, swings with high backs and unitary surfacing, a type of safety surface that is easily accessible for children with wheelchairs or mobility issues.

"Creating fully inclusive playgrounds reflects Boston's ongoing commitment to create opportunities for all its residents. Playgrounds like Harambee minimize differences among children while creating a realization among adults that disabilities do not have to limit opportunities for all children to play together," said William Kiernan, director of the Institute for Community Inclusion.

Another good example of an accessible playground was completed in St. Louis' Tilles Park in 2006. Designed with input from therapists and other health care professionals at St. Louis Children's Hospital, as well as landscape architects at SWT Design and St. Louis County Parks, the playground features a soft surface material to minimize injuries due to falls while allowing easy access for wheelchairs. A ramp system allows wheelchairs and kids who are mobility-impaired to get on and off the structure easily, without awkward turning for wheelchairs. It also gives wheelchair users a chance to get up higher—something they rarely get to experience. The stainless steel slide can be used by kids with cochlear implants, who experience problems on plastic slides.

For more natural play elements, kids of all abilities can take part in a dinosaur dig in the sand play area, which is designed so kids in wheelchairs can also dig. And the water-play area features a push-button start instead of a motion sensor so children who may be unsteady on their feet are not startled.

"All children, even those with challenges, need nature," Stoecklin said. "Research has proven that children with specialized behavior and learning needs respond very favorably to the natural world. We have always used what we call universal design, which goes beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act and looks at how each child can participate in all activities side-by-side."

For an example, she said that a hiding bush can be made accessible easily through attention to turning radius, surfacing and reach ranges. A sandbox can be made accessible with 6-inch steps with rails, a transfer station for those in wheelchairs and back supports for the children who need them.

A World of Play

There is one other way of looking at accessibility—and that from the perspective of children who do not have access to open space or play spaces at all.

In a recent study commissioned by KaBOOM! and conducted by Harris Interactive of 1,677 parents with children between the ages of 2 and 12, 59 percent of parents reported that their children do not have access to a community playground. And in the lowest income bracket, that number goes up to 69 percent.

The vast majority of parents surveyed felt that playing outside is critical to keeping kids physically fit, but less than a fifth (17 percent) thought children played enough outside, and parents reported that their children spend less than an hour per day engaged in unstructured play outdoors.

All in all, the study reveals that although the message about the importance of play in children's lives is getting out there, that doesn't mean children are given the time and space they need for play on a daily basis.

To help fix the problem, parents also say they're willing to work to ensure their kids can play, with more than half indicating they'd be willing to work to build new playgrounds, raise funds for equipment and encourage their schools to open playgrounds during non-school hours.

Like KaBOOM!, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) has been working to bring play and park spaces to underserved areas. Recent success stories include the transformation of vacant lots in Boston's park-poor Dorchester district into a space for the neighborhood to play.

One of Boston's most multi-racial areas, Dorchester is home to 16 percent of the population of the City of Boston. And while Boston averages 10 acres of public open space per 1,000 residents, Dorchester is far behind, averaging less than five acres of open space per 1,000 residents.

This small project on Elmhurst Street, whose grand opening was set for June 27 (just days after the writing of this story) will feature play structures, hopscotch courts, jump-rope areas, sandboxes, swing sets, water jets and grassy lawns for the kids, with amenities to suit adults as well, like shade, barbecue pits, seating areas and picnic tables.

The park will provide access to play and nature for those whose options have been limited. You can't beat that.

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.