Imagination at Play

Trends in Playground Design

By Wynn St. Clair

In an effort to meet 21st-century expectations, progressive recreation managers are rethinking their approach to playground design. The modern style is all about imagination, about tapping into one's inventive side and rethinking how the equipment will be used—and who will use it.

That means building playgrounds that spark the imagination, encourage creative play, attract a wide variety of users and enhance communities. Whether this is achieved through a universally accessible park, adult-centric equipment, a natural play space or just a really fun theme, it needs to be done.

"The playground industry has never been more creative or diverse," said California-based industry consultant Miranda Carrillo. "There is so much available right now, it's really very easy to keep patrons entertained."

Carrillo finds the growing popularity of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) among the most exciting trends in the industry currently. GFRC equipment offers a natural, rock-like feel and texture. What's more, it doesn't look as artificial as fiberglass.

The structures—which encourage climbing and other imaginative play—are UV-stable and have a natural, weathered finish that won't fade over time. Proponents often argue that the durable GFRC structures get better with age because they harden over time, delivering years of reliable use. The concrete is designed to survive even the harshest and most punishing climates because it doesn't burn, splinter or crumble.

The concrete works well, in part, because it can be turned into whimsical play structures in a variety of ways. Manufacturers are constantly coming up with new methods for molding and sculpting the GFRC into all sorts of shapes, which helps to create independent play elements or to bolster a thematic design for a play area. As a design medium, the concrete's extreme flexibility allows designers to emulate realistic textures such as scales, feathers, furs, leaves and tree bark.

"The glass fiber reinforced concrete is a wonderful partner for creating an engaging playground theme," Carrillo said. "It easily transforms into a dragon or a tree house or a snake or whatever else you can imagine. Themed playgrounds are so popular at the moment, and the concrete is a huge reason why."

Indeed, themed playgrounds have become the must-have accessories for parks and schools in recent years. The most engaging play spaces today are more than just a collection of fun features. In a move stolen from private-sector amusement parks, many public playgrounds have been transformed into well-planned fantasylands with a central theme carried throughout. Whether it is a fantastical motif such as an enchanted forest or a historical homage to the community, themed playgrounds give facilities an extra zing in a world where the number of outdoor recreation options continues to grow.

In Mankato, Minn., for example, officials recently opened a farmstead-themed playground in the 126-year-old Sibley Park. Located next to a beloved petting zoo filled with alpacas, calves, goats, peacocks, horses, pigs, lambs, chicks and ducklings, the play area site has been a popular place for field trips and family outings for years.

The park, named for Minnesota's first Governor, Henry Hastings Sibley, offers recreational opportunities, space for weddings and picnicking areas, as well as the storybook farm site. Over the past century, the park has boasted a horse racing track, regional zoo, museum, community band shell, clay tennis courts and renowned gardens. In other words, it historically has been far more than a run-of-the-mill park.

"The hope is to continue to work on Sibley Park to make it a regional draw ... to recapture its glory days," Mankato Director of Public Works Mark Knoff said when the plan was first announced.

That's exactly what the playground's designers aimed for as they worked to create a space that reflected the dynamic community park's rich history. Using a variety of materials, they created two barn-themed play structures, a chicken coop structure, pig pen, tractor climber, corn stalk climbers, and a wagon-themed seesaw, among other features. To grab the attention of passersby and visitors alike, they sculpted farm animals—chickens, coyotes, horses and pigs—using concrete and hand painted them for a simultaneously realistic and whimsical look.

The end result was so successful, the playground is now trumpeted as a tourist attraction by the Greater Mankato Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

The state of New York is hoping for similar success with its recently announced plans to renovate playgrounds at two state parks in the Albany area. The park improvements, which were announced in October, are being funded with $223,333 from the Governor's New York Works initiative.

Under the initiative, the state will build or create new playgrounds at two parks and install new playground equipment at two additional parks in the capital region. The plans embrace the latest trends in playground design, as the sites will be accessible to people with disabilities and have distinct areas for different age groups. Each playground will have its own unique themes reflecting characteristics of the park, as well, officials said. Playground improvements will be coupled with site improvements, including shade trees or canopies, seating, water fountains and trail/walkway connections to the rest of the park.

At John Boyd Thacher State Park in Albany County, there soon will be a new playground in an underutilized portion of the park picnic area. It will have a high adventure theme, featuring two 80-foot zip lines, cable climbers and climbing boulders. In nearby Saratoga County, the governor's office has earmarked money for a new nature-themed playground that includes play structures that resemble logs, mushrooms and trees.

The plan has won bipartisan support, as GOP lawmakers have praised the Democratic governor for the backing the initiative.

"Our state parks add to New York's quality of life for families, and this new nature-themed playground will give Capital Region families another reason to visit one of the true jewels of our area, Saratoga Spa State Park," said Assembly Man James Tedisco, a Republican who represents the Saratoga area. "I want to thank Gov. Cuomo and the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for building this playground in Saratoga that will give children and families a safe place to play, exercise and have fun."

Construction began in the off-season and the playgrounds are expected to be ready for use by spring. New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation currently plans to fix, modernize or create more than 50 playgrounds, particularly in those parks with high visitation by families. The New York Works initiative also is creating 20 new or improved playgrounds to further attract families to parks in the next year.

"It is important that children have a safe and engaging place to play, and these NY Works projects will give them just that in state parks across New York," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in announcing the initiative last year. "The numbers tell the story of more and more people visiting the parks, and I encourage everyone to visit these new and improved areas inside the state parks as well as the beauty that New York has to offer."

Parks, however, don't always need fancy equipment or thrilling structures to be entertaining. An increasing number of open spaces have been turned into natural playgrounds, which are designed to blend indigenous vegetation and features with creative landforms and fun diversions. They are intended to bring children back to nature, offering a wide range of open-ended play options that encourage creativity and spark imaginations.

Anyone who has climbed a tree, rolled down a hill or leapt into a pile of leaves has experienced natural play. Experts, however, worry those activities are becoming outdated in the 21st century, losing a popularity contest to video games and the Internet. In detailing the assortment of behavioral problems children unacquainted with the outdoors exhibit, author Richard Louv described the condition as "Nature Deficit Disorder" in his book Last Child in the Woods.

Natural playgrounds, or playscapes, are a suggested antidote for the disorder and technology's stronghold on children by encouraging kids to simply get outside and play. And the latest research seems to back this philosophy.

A recent study from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville found children who play on playgrounds that incorporate natural elements like logs and flowers tend to be more active than those who play on traditional playgrounds with metal and brightly colored equipment. They also appear to use their imagination more, according to the report.

"Natural playgrounds have been popping up around the country, but there was nothing conclusive on if they work," said Dawn Coe, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies. "Now, we know."

As part of the study, Coe observed children at the university's Early Learning Center beginning in June 2011. She watched children play on traditional wood and plastic equipment, logging how often they used the slides and other apparatus and studying the intensity of their activity. She also recorded how much time the kids spent sitting in the shade to avoid the sun.

The playground then went under a major renovation over the next several months, as gazebos and slides were built into a hill. The center also planted dwarf trees, built a creek and landscaped it with rocks and flowers. They also placed logs and tree stumps in the area, turning the traditional playground into a natural playscape.

When Coe returned for follow-up observations, she found significant changes to how the children played. Their playtime nearly doubled in the playscape, as they spent time leaping off logs and watering the plants along the creek, according to the report. Coe also noted that the children were engaging in more aerobic and muscle-building exercise. They spent less time in the shade, as well.

"Natural playscapes appear to be a viable alternative to traditional playgrounds for school and community settings," Coe said.

The traditional playground users are also changing, as many recreation managers are considering adding equipment and play structures to attract adult patrons. In June, New York City park officials introduced Gotham's first adult playground at Macombs Dam Park in the Bronx and have plans to install about two dozen more across the region over the next year.

The site is filled with exercise equipment such as chin-up bars, monkey bars, incline benches and balance beams that provide an old-school way to tighten abs and build muscle. Without seesaws and slides, it's more of an outdoor gym than playground—but the site still harkens adult patrons back to their youth, when time and energy came in seemingly endless supplies and it was fun to just be outside.

While still relatively novel in the United States, adult playgrounds long have been popular in China and parts of western Europe. In those areas, older populations have happily made the sites a part of their daily fitness routines.

Kelly Singer, a personal trainer based in the Seattle area, first admired adult playgrounds while living in Paris with her husband. She'd watch the French enjoy a solid workout at playgrounds along the Seine and thought the city had tapped into a unique way to get people moving.

She didn't realize its potential in the United States until 2011, while she was helping her friend Paige Green Dunn lose weight after having a baby. During a training session at Dunn's home, the women struggled to get a decent workout in amid the baby crawling everywhere, the dog pestering them to play and other distractions. Dunn wondered if she would ever find the time—or the peace—to truly get back in shape.

It seemed hopeless until a few weeks later, when Dunn and Singer had a "eureka!" moment while sitting together at a local park. Ever since that at-home workout debacle, they had been brainstorming ways to create an environment where it was easy for the whole family to exercise, as often moms (and other caregivers) put their own health on the back burner for the sake of their children.

As they watched other moms sit on benches or stand around talking while their kids played, the women realized the answer was right in front of them.

The two mothers soon launched a grassroots campaign to build "MOMentum" sites to help new mothers shed their baby weight. Each site faces a children's play area and holds five pieces of equipment that specifically target the areas moms care about most: abs, arms, hips and thighs.

The stationary, weather-proof equipment—which does not require electricity—includes a free runner, a sit-up bench, a hip flexor, push up bars and a captain's chair that facilitates leg lifts and helps build abdominal muscles. The area also features rubber mats and signage detailing exercises that can be accomplished on the ground.

"It's great way to get people outside," Singer said. "Parks just offer a great sense of community and there's something to be said for facilitating a way for people to be more active. People want to be active, they want to be healthy. They just need the resources, and that's what we want to provide."

The women raised $30,000 to cover the equipment costs of the first MOMentum site at Les Gove Park in Auburn, Wash., while the parks department covered the cost of the installation and concrete. A second was dedicated in Redmond, Wash., last summer, and there are plans to build three others in the Seattle area soon.

Both existing sites have developed enthusiastic and loyal followings. But even more exciting for Singer and Dunn are the number of children who have seen their mothers working out and caring about their own health because of the MOMentum initiative. The mere visual teaches kids about the importance of staying in shape—and it's a lesson they will carry with them their entire lives, Dunn said.

"I believe healthy mothers raise healthy kids," Dunn said. "If we can make it easier for a mom to exercise with quality equipment, she will become the foundation for a lifetime of healthy choices for herself and everyone around her."

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