Play Date

What's New on the Playground?

By Deborah Vence

The archetypal playground today incorporates the characteristic swings and slides, as well as crawl-through tunnels, rock climbing walls and rope bridges, just to name a few. But, now a newer trend is emerging that incorporates nature into the mix and features for special needs children—giving the classic playground a whole new backdrop.

"There's definitely more trying to reconnect children with nature," said Rebecca Beach, CFO and owner of an Evanston, Ill.-based company that specializes in recycled plastic commercial playground equipment for schools, parks, day cares, churches and more.

To boot, playground manufacturers are making a move toward addressing the needs of children with disabilities by incorporating more universal playground features that all children can benefit from.

"With approximately one in 110 children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and the fastest-growing developmental disability, the playground equipment industry must take notice and define opportunities for these children," said Shane Lanier, founder and owner of a Carrollton, Ga.-based commercial recreation equipment distributor. "Sensory integration disorder (SID), which is seen in many children with autism, is becoming more of a mainstream topic."

Such top recreation industry experts talked with Recreation Management magazine about the latest in playground features, with a focus on what's new on the horizon in nature-inspired playground elements and special needs components.

Back to Nature

While the world of playgrounds has evolved into colorful configurations of curvy slides, tunnels, climbers and more, playground manufacturers now are trying to incorporate nature into their works of wonder.

"We've seen an increasing interest in products that are focused on nature in several regards," said Anne-Marie Spencer, director of marketing for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based commercial playground manufacturer. "Color, for instance ... many facilities are looking for play spaces that blend more harmoniously with the surroundings, in tones of browns, greens and beige punctuated with reds, oranges and yellow as accents that are still natural, but add a bright and interesting pop of color to attract children."

Additionally, the parent company of Spencer's firm—in partnership with the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University—developed a comprehensive program that offers best practice guidelines for designing play environments that integrate the built environment with the living landscape.

"Research shows that naturalized playgrounds provide more play value, increase physical activity and support environmental sustainability efforts," Spencer said.

"Trees and other child-friendly plant vegetation become part of the play experience providing multi-sensory opportunities, outdoor learning, natural shade, socio-dramatic play with loose parts, and enhance the overall aesthetic quality of the outdoor play environment for children, families and communities across our nation," she added.

Furthermore, to boost children's imagination, Spencer's company recently came up with a new product line of playhouses that encourages preschool-aged children to explore imagination and creativity, one of which features more nature-inspired elements, such as a planter window with cup holders for seedlings, as well as a real telescope, spinning flowers and a potting shelf.

"All are designed to offer dramatic, imaginative sensory play opportunities through exploration and game facilitation," she said.

Incorporating nature in with playground settings has landscape architects and designers—who specialize in designing and building play spaces that look and feel like a natural environment—using the term, "playscape." A playscape space should be as natural as possible, with as few manmade components as possible; instead, using native plants and trees to enhance the environment. Playscapes are designed with the goal of bringing children and people back to nature—with rolling hills and fallen logs as opposed to a central play structure with monkey bars.

"The playscape would be a microcosm of their community—a community's landscape—a lot of education about rainforests, protecting those areas," Beach said. "And, there are so many natural things in a community's own microcosm that really [bodes well for] hands-on learning. That should be more utilized."

"The playscape should be designed to allow many different types of experiences, such as wild natural areas, quiet secret places, water, sand and dirt play, building/construction spaces, secret paths, music, sculpture and art, gardening space, social gathering, and all kids love hiding places ... all these places invite children to use their imagination and learn from the natural world," she said.

Beach's company thrives on developing playground products that enable children to use their imagination, giving them the opportunities for genuine experiences with nature, gardening, music and art.

The company has a new line of products that give designers and landscape architects the opportunity to design and build low-maintenance, durable infrastructures that invite children to spend more of their day outdoors. In fact, one of Beach's favorite quotes on getting children to play outside in nature is from Sweden, where children spend as much as 75 percent of their day outdoors, she said, quoting, "There is no bad weather, only bad clothes."

So, to help entice children to play in nature, Beach's company developed a "green" house that incorporates living "green" roof trays of sedums [a type of plant] into a play house. The "green" house gives children a chance to learn about reducing rain run-off and creating cooler micro-climates under a living roof.

Meanwhile, John McConkey, marketing insights manager for a Delano, Minn.-based commercial playground equipment manufacturer, said that he's seeing nature incorporated into playgrounds in different ways—through water features, land forms, different ways to create dirt mounds or varied pathways.

"There's use of a lot of native plant materials. And then the type of materials that we have been able to introduce [are] what's [called] Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete [GFRC] that allows us to take stamping from real trees, and when we come to our facility we can model the concrete with that impression. So, it's realistic to the original tree. The bark is original to a pine oak or white alder," he said.

"It's very relevant to that native environment, and we use a combination of paints and ways to color that, and [make it as] true to form as possible. That material is a real innovation. It allows for that flexibility, that artistry. The types of people who do this work are artists," McConkey added.

He explained that the material originally was used in zoos to create rock forms in and around animal exhibits.

"It would be the type of thing to create the border or background, a large-scale bear den or lion's den. Then the technology evolved from real rock to make it look like real trees or bark," McConkey said. "So, it's a real combination of manufactured and customized detail and material that create a natural [look]."

One of the company's nature-inspired playground product designs includes a treehouse, which boasts realistic wood grain and bark textures, which are molded directly from nature.

He added, "When we work with landscape architects, what we have found is a growing interest for a sense of place, where there are some features or attributes that create a connection with the geological history or the social history of that play environment and visitors."

In addition to bringing children into nature, you can ensure your playground equipment itself is nature-friendly by working with manufacturers that are taking steps to improve the sustainability of their products.

"As we see it, part of serving the needs of children is helping provide them a green, sustainable world," said Tina Spritka, marketing coordinator for Fond du Lac, Wis.-based play equipment manufacturer.

The Universal Playground

Children with special needs can have anything from mild learning disabilities to extreme mental retardation, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. In particular, autism is on the rise with a December 2009 ADDM autism prevalence report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating that the prevalence of autism has risen to one in every 110 births in the United States and almost one in 70 boys.

In turn, more playground manufacturers are stepping up to the plate to address the needs of children with disabilities by considering the general design of a playground.

"What's being discovered is the importance for the sensory systems of children with ASD and SID to be given the sensory input that they require," Lanier said. "The playground gives a child the opportunity to 'feed' the vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems through heavy work and movement and it is this heavy work and movement that will calm and refocus the child. This is the most important aspect of a child's educational setting, to allow these opportunities, so that the child can function as their peers do."

Lanier said that activities such as swinging, rocking, spinning, pulling, pushing and heavy work are crucial to finding homeostasis, or balance, in the sensory system.

"These sensory activities are calming to the nervous system and help refocus a child," he said. "Swinging and motion-oriented components have helped improve these sensory systems, and I believe we'll see more designs integrate these features."

Lindsay Richardson, director of marketing and sales administration, new business development, for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based designer, manufacturer and marketer of a range of commercial and consumer playground and park equipment, said her company's new line of playground products focus on inclusion, so children of all abilities can participate.

"It's designed for children of all abilities. Every child has different abilities. There's something for everybody because it's open-ended play. There's no right or wrong way to play, whether a child is in a wheelchair, has autism or site impairment," Richardson said.

The product, which can be used indoors and outdoors, includes large-scale, modular play elements that children can use separately or together in any combination.

She said her company does a lot of work around inclusion. Many people think that mobility disability is the only disability. But, there are also many different kinds of sensory disabilities, including hearing impairment, and the autism spectrum.

"It's just being launched now this year, and the best way to describe its usage is that it has a home base, because you can move it around," she said. "Within the park and recreation district, it can be used indoors and outdoors, where there are fitness facilities. I think the best example is a community center, day camps, after-school programming."

For example, the play product, which was designed by two visual artists in the United Kingdom, can be used for team building activity.

Richardson recalled a group of children who used the product and created a bridge, and had a troll hiding under it. Some built three different houses, while another group built animal habitats.

"[They can] imagine and create these things and activities, [which are] linked to what they are doing in the classroom. Imaginative play is the most important factor," she said. "It's so open-ended. Children are inspired to use their imagination."

McConkey noted that there are three play challenges that children with sensory processing disorders have—social play domain, imaginary play and sensory play domain. Social and imaginary play are among the most sophisticated play skills that kids develop, and he said that children with disabilities need that development and can benefit from that experience.

Company research, via interviews and focus group sessions, revealed that play structures can be over-stimulating, and can be too much for children with sensory disorders. "It's not as engaging," he said.

Therefore, some children with disabilities might need smaller, isolated spaces that are more intimate with a smaller group of kids, with sand and water elements, a spinning area, areas of multisensory display elements, he said.

For example, one special needs child might need to have some calming time, so they go into a space limited to outside stimulation—one that's quieter, darker and calmer, while another child might need a lot of sensory input.

"All ADA guidelines for playgrounds are geared around providing access, not necessarily what the play experience is like, or if it's functional for them. And so, we look at designing for a wide range of kids that come to the playground. One characteristic of [special needs] kids is their sensory processing disorder, but that crosses a lot of other disabilities, [such as] Down syndrome, learning disabilities, speech and language disabilities," he said.

A helpful exercise involving what's called proprioceptive input [heavy work activities] is climbing, whether it's a simplistic climber, a big plastic climber or one made out of more flexible material—high tension cables designed in a spider web configuration. Heavy work activities are used for children with sensory processing difficulties to help increase attention, decrease defensiveness and control excitement.

In a therapeutic environment with heavy work activities, "[a therapist might say], you're going to help move this whole bookcase of books, and pull all the books off the shelf [and then put them back on]," McConkey said.

That repetitive activity can help the proprioceptive system. Proprioceptive input is essential in helping the human body incorporate and process both movement (vestibular) and touch (tactile) information.

Also, play elements that spin create a tremendous vestibular input. A child with autism might start to feel overwhelmed or over-stimulated, so the spinning helps to provide what an occupational therapist calls a sensory diet, a therapy regimen used in schools to help give kids sensory input, to help them calm and center themselves.

"These types of activities help to provide just the right level of sensory input," he added. "Sensory play is the fundamental entry point where everybody connects and everyone has that connection, and [can be] the gateway for kids with autism or sensory processing orders that can bring them together to create common interests."

Safety and Security

Children need to be safe and secure on the playground, and so the latest features in safety and security are ensuring just that.

A Monett, Mo.-based playground equipment manufacturer introduced a new security system in 2009 designed to prevent crime.

"In certain areas where playground vandalism has occurred, the [new security system] can protect the equipment with its motion-activated sonic screen, and then videotape the vandals for future prosecution," said Don Hemingway, vice president of business development for a Huntersville, N.C.-based playground and recreational equipment manufacturer, adding that the video surveillance and sonic screens are "deterrents which have proven to reduce crime."

And, the company currently has several operational security installations in playgrounds, city parks and schools, Hemingway said.

In addition, Shane Lanier, founder and owner of a Carrollton, Ga.-based commercial recreation equipment distributor, said that some manufacturers are using a C-Line clamp system to attach components to playground support posts.

"This eliminates the old post clamp system that created hand holds and foot holds where children could climb on parts of the playground that were not necessarily designed for climbing," Lanier said.

Meanwhile, he said the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has recommended a minimum of nine inches of loose fill material as opposed to the old standard of six inches.

To boot, other more recent safety features include "adding shade to the play structure to lend protection from harmful UV rays," Lanier said.

He also advised that though there are many playground manufacturers, "be sure that your playground is manufactured to the stringent standards. Check that the equipment is IPEMA certified. IPEMA is a third-party testing that ensures that the playground equipment not only meets ASTM and CPSC standards but also maintains that the factory is knowledgeable and prepared to meet those standards."

Meanwhile, Spencer noted that being mindful of the overall design is the best way to ensure inclusion on the playground.

"Creating special equipment that is set apart for children with special needs is not the best route," Spencer said. "Rather, we should ensure that we design the entire environment, so that all children can play together no matter what their ability."

Her company creates play spaces using seven principles of inclusive design, in order to ensure that a disability isn't singled out.

"[We] include features and components throughout that will celebrate and integrate people of all abilities in the play space. Playgrounds can and should be designed so that all users feel comfortable, on equipment that is designed to accommodate them, rather than requiring the user to adapt in order to accommodate the equipment," Spencer said, adding that some of the play products her company makes incorporate wide ramps, which can accommodate two mobility devices side by side, ensuring that children never have to interrupt their play time to wait for an open path.

Making sure that play spaces are equipped for children with special needs is the mission of Let Kids Play!, an organization founded in 2007 by Mara Kaplan, a nationally recognized expert in play and play spaces and a parent of a child with disabilities. Let Kids Play! is a consulting group that works to ensure that all children have access to play regardless of age or ability. The organization works with playground manufacturers, nonprofit organizations, park districts, local communities and parents to create and design play spaces. The organization also reviews and provides recommendations for high-quality toys that promote inclusive play.

Kaplan said that parents who have children with disabilities have said that they need something more for their child at the playground.

Some have told her, "'We pay our taxes and there isn't anything for our child to do.' We see the park districts in and of themselves serve their full community. It is a huge number of children with autism, and that growing number puts one in every 10 children [with] a disability, other statistics show one in every 20 children. So, do you really want to leave out a tenth of your community?" Kaplan said.

Ian Proud, research director for a Lewisburg, Pa.-based commercial playground manufacturer, said that the partnership between his company and Let Kids Play! was formed to help make sure playgrounds are meeting the requirements of special needs children.

"There's a Play Day [coming up] in Ohio where Mara is going to be the observer of 57 total children, and a good 35 to 40 have disabilities. This playground is a fairly new playground with [our] newest equipment, and we want to see how the kids play on it," Proud said.

Kaplan wants to see what really works and what doesn't work on the playground.

"Should we tweak something? [We're looking at] kids with autism, kids with cerebral palsy using mobility devices, kids who are developmentally delayed. We're looking at disabilities in a global sense," Kaplan said.

As an example, Proud noted a story about a parent he met whose child has spina bifida.

"I've never heard such a passionate speech, just the emotion and passion around her statement. She was on the playground where the layout was so poor, and it excluded her child from playing there," Proud said.

"What she said to me was that she had been to a playground where she wanted to bring her family, and found that the ADA swing was indeed wheelchair appropriate, but it was put in the middle of mulch, and [she] wasn't able to push the wheelchair across it. She was so frustrated and so upset that this thing should be happening at all. This was beyond her comprehension," he said.

That's why surfacing also is important when creating a universal playground.

"A truly universal playground doesn't use mulch. Engineered fiber meets ADA requirements. However, I have never been able to push my son's wheelchair across it. Right now, our choices are rubber tiles or specially designed turf. Maybe somebody will come up with a more perfect surfacing," Kaplan said.

Keeping that in mind, park districts and recreational facilities need to consult with parents in the community and find out what they really need out of a playground.

"To make your first step would be to pull parents together who are in your community and say what do you think of this playground? How does it work for you? What would you like to have added? If it doesn't have the right surfacing, you won't get to the universal design," Kaplan suggested. "Interview users, and if you are starting something new, what happens a lot of times is that the designer will meet ADA requirements, but doesn't go beyond ADA. You have to be careful of the design, otherwise you are isolating children."

Kaplan added: "What we have here and what I think is going to be a trend for the future is much more ground-level activity, instead of the traditional play form. We will see more seesaws, more spring riders, more basketball hoops, things that can happen on the ground so everybody can be participating at their own level."

She said playgrounds need to get to the point where children of all abilities are using them.

"We want to see them using it to burn calories, exercise. How is somebody in a wheelchair going to do that? And we want the unstructured play, where the parent can step back and watch the kids interact and learn on their own," she said. "And right now we don't have all of those things in place. I think we will be able to do modifications quickly. Some things you'll see within the next year or so. Some will take much longer."

Furthermore, Kaplan pointed out that the combination of nature and play structures together can be of benefit as well to children with special needs.

"Landscaping, and specifically designed play equipment that fits right into nature, we're really going to start to see the true value of a child interacting in nature in addition to playing on the playground," she said. "Research at U of I [has shown that] if a child with ADHD takes a walk in nature for 15 minutes, he or she is much more focused for the rest of the day."

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