Maintenance & Operations: Playgrounds

Playgrounds and Sense of Place

By Tammy York

One of the building blocks to a healthy lifestyle is active play, especially playing outdoors. Play engages the senses and helps children learn problem-solving skills. Active physical play requires a complex communication between problem-solving, planning and acting. This trifecta of sorts helps children develop muscle skills and the neural connections to maximize the potential of the muscle.

As the American population of adults gets wider and wider, we are not setting a good example for our children, who are also getting wider and wider. In fact, obesity affects 17 percent of children and teens. And as with adults, there are serious medical problems associated with carrying around all of that extra poundage, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes and cardiovascular problems that occur with added weight.

Stealth Health

Playground designers are building playgrounds that promote cardiovascular health. "Kids burn more calories in a more physically active experience in the playground than even in organized sports and in physical education class," said John McConkey, IPEMA member and market insights manager with a Delano, Minn.-based play equipment manufacturer. This is done by creating an environment that is exciting and challenging, but also promotes cardiovascular health, balance, muscle strength, coordination and experience, as well as cognitive planning on where to go next and how to get there.

"Kids think they are just playing and having fun; they don't realize they are getting a workout," McConkey said. Playgrounds are being designed to be inclusive environments for children to have fun and be engaged no matter what the child's ability level.

Free Range

Besides plenty of exercise and fresh air, children also need a sense of place in the ever-increasing monoculture we live in. There are very few "places" that kids can call their own and identify with on an emotional level. This might be hard for some of us to understand since you most likely grew up with the rule set of "come home when the street lights come on or when the sun goes down," and during that stretch of boundless freedom you likely explored fields, creeks and forests with abandon.

Children today are boxed in to a decreasing home range. With that restriction on movement comes the limited opportunity to identify their place in the community and the world. Since children are usually not out of sight of their parents, the sense of exploration and adventure is lost along with the ability to reason and solve problems.

Nature-based play, in which children are actually prescribed un-organized time in nature, helps children gain healthier lifestyles by increasing activity, awareness and appreciation for the world they live in and are part of. Richard Louv is an advocate of children getting outdoors and into nature-based play, and the "Leave No Child Inside" or the "New Nature Movement" is steadily gaining ground.

For more information on nature-based play, the Children and Nature Network ( is a treasure trove of information and ideas. Some of those ideas you could translate to playground development.

Making the Grade

According to the most recent data from the National Association of State Park Directors, Americans utilize state and local parks at a higher frequency than national parks. State parks entertained more than 730 million visitors from July 2006 through June 2007, and with the majority (90.9 percent) day visitors. During this time period, states acquired 56,681 acres of parkland and spent more than $463 million on new construction of state park improvements to accommodate growing populations.

According to the latest (2009) Report Card for America's Infrastructure produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the 75 largest cities in the United States, home to more than 51 million Americans, reported spending just under $5 billion in fiscal year 2006 on urban park and recreation facilities and programming, adding more than 5,000 acres of green space. Despite such spending, the amount of parkland per resident has declined due to rapid increases in population. In 2006, the 60 largest cities averaged 18.88 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents. In 2007, that number fell to 16.72 acres per 1,000 residents. As suburban areas become more densely populated with infill developments, parkland will become more important in maintaining residents' health, safety and stable property values.

This same report card rated Public Parks and Recreation a C-. However, the Trust for Public Land reported that even in the current troubling economic environment, voters in November 2008 approved a record amount of new funding measures for parks and open space. Voters supported 62 of 87 (71 percent) conservation finance ballot measures, representing a commitment to spend $7.3 billion on parks and open space. The $8.4 billion total approved by ballot measures in all of 2008 is the highest single-year amount in 10 years.

The American Society of Civil Engineers offers the following solutions to overcome problems with budget deficits:

  • Create partnerships between public agencies and private recreation and conservation groups to provide benefits to the public at a lower cost.
  • Adopt regional planning approaches that recognize recreation use and demand trends to maximize the use of limited funds for park acquisition and maintenance. Care must be taken to avoid overextending limited operation and maintenance budgets by creating too many new properties.
  • Establish state and local dedicated funding sources for parks and recreation facilities to ensure consistent future funding.
  • Continue to increase federal leadership through programs like the Centennial Initiative and the Land and Water Conservation Fund to meet growing population demands for outdoor recreation opportunities.
  • Establish a federal commission to study ways to improve access to recreation in the United States. A bipartisan commission could assess use and demand of outdoor recreational facilities and better track the spending and effectiveness of federal investments in parks and recreation facilities.

Keeping Up With Change

The International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), provides third-party product certification services for U.S. and Canadian public play equipment and public play surfacing materials in the United States and manages the "Voice of Play" Web site to educate the general public, parents, teachers and organizations such as PTA, PTO and community groups about the various benefits of play including how playgrounds and playing help reduce childhood obesity and have many different social, cognitive and emotional benefits.

Even with strong support, playgrounds can unfortunately become cookie cutter-ish and lack a sense of place as a result. The colors might range from day-glo rainbow sherbet to modern day camo, and features common to any playground can be found, such as a slide, monkey bars and swings. One playground looks just like the next, and it is difficult to tell the difference between them, especially for the children playing on the playground.

A growing trend in playground design is to divide the playground into smaller pocket playgrounds. The smaller playgrounds are typically theme-based and have a much smaller footprint than a "traditional" playground. The advantages of pocket playgrounds such as the "Pathways to Play" initiative are that children's senses are engaged more in these small environments, and their cardiovascular health is improved simply for the fact that they have to follow a trail to get from one pocket to the next.

Another side benefit of pocket playgrounds versus the sprawling playground set is that it is easier for parents to be engaged as well, rather than sitting on the sidelines. Theming with pocket playgrounds can be anything from enormous butterflies to trees to cityscapes. This allows for an endless list of ways to incorporate the sense of place and uniqueness into the playground setting.

For example, a butterfly pocket playground might tie a species of butterfly in with the specific area where the children are playing, and why that type of butterfly would live there. The morphology and biology of the butterfly from egg to larvae to chrysalis to butterfly are all there for the children to explore while they are also literally climbing, sliding and jumping on the butterfly.

Not only do these play pockets offer an opportunity for children to learn, explore, engage and appreciate nature, but they also help children develop a sense of place.

Sense of Place

In addition to using smaller playground venues that are modeled with nature-based and cityscape themes, playgrounds can also incorporate icons of the community. Each city is viewed by the residents in a certain way. Chicago is The Windy City, New York is The City that Never Sleeps, and New Orleans is The Big Easy.

An example of what you can do to benefit your parks system has been completed in Atlanta. This program created partnerships between public agencies and private entities as well as recreation and conservation groups and the community to provide a unique playground that provided universal access as well as a unique sense of place.

If you know anyone from Atlanta, you most likely have heard them refer to the city as the ATL. It is the identifier and the sense of place that pulls the community together. It is what kids identify with and can establish their sense of place. In Georgia, Atlanta is known as the ATL.

The initials are everywhere and Atlantians refer to their city as the ATL. This simple yet powerful sense of place played an important role in the development of a playground in downtown Atlanta. Playable10 in conjunction with Atlanta Taskforce on Play (ATOP) playground design competition brought a variety of creative talent into designing the playground and the winning playground design incorporated the favorites of playgrounds along with the valued sense of place.

The result is a playground structure developed around the iconic ATL. " I couldn't believe the response we got from the children," said Cynthia Gentry, founding director, ATOP. "We showed the children several designs for playgrounds from all over the world; when they saw that they leaped up and said the ATL! That's us!"

The ATL design playground made the playground a "place" in the children's world and community, and immediately gave the children and the community a sense of ownership. The ATL playground is located in Woodruff Park in the highly visible and well-traveled heart of the downtown area.

Nature-Based Playgrounds

To create a one-of-a-kind place with characteristics that make it a destination with opportunities for seamless play, playgrounds can incorporate the human and natural history of a region.

"It really gives the children that historical connection to the place that they are in and helps them to understand that environment in a much greater fashion," said Randy Watermiller, IPEMA president. "In Minnesota there is a playground themed around the Big Woods, which was a forest that was in existence in this part of the country."

"If we help children develop an appreciation of nature at a young age, they will carry that value with them, which is good for our land," said Thomas Norquist, IPEMA secretary. "It is important for children to have an appreciation for the outdoors and all the natural places they can go and play and all the wonders that come with that."

In Chandler, Ariz., a playground called Playtopia occupies a section of the city's Tumbleweed Park and includes several play zones with themes based on Chandler's long agricultural heritage. The playground also incorporates the history of dinosaur bone discoveries of the past with the children having the ability to dig for dinosaur bones today.

These playgrounds help not only bring a sense of place to a child's world, but the playgrounds also teach and serve as an area for children to develop social, physical and cognitive skills. Playgrounds are incorporating the nature discovery play experience whether through programming, facilitator or spontaneous play. Nature-themed playgrounds bring together a combination of manufactured and natural elements while also incorporating the topography, native flora and fauna to the playground design. Pocket playgrounds also are typically designed in this manner.

Universal Play

Besides a playground having a sense of place, it is also important that the playground be accessible and playable for everyone, regardless of their abilities. Universal playground design addresses usability, safety and health.

Designing for inclusion means figuring out a way to create an environment where anyone who wants to come to the playground can, and that the playground meets them at their developmental level. "If they can find experiences that are a just-right fit, such as climbing, swinging, or socially gathering, it addresses the opportunities of anyone who comes to that space to find something that is engaging and fun," McConkey said. Public gathering places that a wide range of people can enjoy become icons of the community, and the community develops a sense of pride regarding that place.

It is important that universal play is not a separate playground. "Bring all of that together so there is no separation in the playground. It entices a level of socialization so the children and caregivers aren't feeling disconnected," Watermiller said.

"For many years play has been the great equalizer. Universal design of destination playgrounds helps all members of society learn to play together at a very young age, and that will affect the way that they play together for the rest of their lives," Norquist said.

Design 101

When it is time to design your community's next playground, you could open the design field up to artists from around the world by hosting a contest with a cash prize. The contest parameters will need to be clearly defined. Do you want a sketch? Do you want an estimate? Do you want a specific element included in the design?

You also can get kids involved in selecting the elements they'd most like to see on the playground.

"Consider who the users are and the overall goals for the playground. What do they want to achieve? In some cases, you might be dealing with potential sensitive issues," Watermiller said. "You need to reach out into the community base and ask for input and ideas. Especially when some might want certain attributes, you must be sensitive to cultural issues."

When building your stakeholder group, bring in the city management, local parks, businesses, professional groups, hospitals, schools, as well as groups covering such topics as parenting, nature and history. By involving these groups at the beginning of your project, you will develop a stronger base of advocates to help with a variety of tasks, including planning and funding.

Odds are good that with several key stakeholders involved you will be able to deftly navigate any cultural issues, develop a playground with a strong sense of place, and have a playground that is the pride of the community that helped build it.

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