Natural, Thematic & Playable By All
The Latest Trends in Playground Design
By Chris Gelbach
As playgrounds look to attract and sustain the interest of screen-obsessed kids, they're differentiating today's designs from those of yesteryear with a focus on natural play, multigenerational appeal, custom theming, playable art and more elements that require decision-making and skill development. In the process, playground manufacturers are seeking to raise the bar in creating destination play spaces and providing experiences that encourage lasting engagement for both children and adults.
"We're finally getting to the maturity level of the industry to see designers and companies starting to push the boundaries to get beyond what some have labeled the dumbed-down playground," said Tom Norquist, senior vice president for a playground manufacturer bases in Fort Payne, Ala., and a board director for the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). "There's a trend toward pushing the boundaries in terms of design innovation and experience that I would say most of the manufacturers and professional consultants are heavily involved with right now."
As landscape architects are creating more diverse play spaces, they're also drawing inspiration—and products—from multiple sources. "A lot of them are not necessarily just using one manufacturer as their solution for a play environment, but mixing it up with products from several different companies and sometimes several different countries," Norquist said.
The Ongoing Evolution of Nature-Inspired Play
According to Norquist, one of the ways manufacturers are doing this is by shifting their focus away from the cartoony themes of the past in favor of more naturalistic designs. This often involves considering how to incorporate the existing landscape into the playground design. It could include figuring out if certain trees can be kept, or if there are existing rock formations that can be used as planting beds or low-level climbing structures.
Playground manufacturers are seeking to raise the bar in creating destination play spaces and providing experiences that encourage lasting engagement for both children and adults.
"With the larger destination parks, the landscape architects in their development are doing a better job of integrating the topography into the playground," said Lloyd Reese, an IPEMA board member and the director of engineering and development for a playground manufacturer based in Huntersville, N.C. "They're using different elevations to access a play structure, or using hillside slides. It's not just an old recycled tennis court that they put a playground on. They've done a great job of integrating nature and other elements into the play area."
According to John McConkey, market insights manager for a playground manufacturer based in Delano, Minn., this also includes the still-increasing use of manufactured elements that conform to playground safety standards and guidelines, but that emulate natural elements like fallen logs, along with the use of natural color palettes.
He's also seeing more playgrounds in environments that encourage real contact with natural materials. This includes playgrounds surrounded by trails through the woods, playgrounds surrounded by sand and water play areas, or areas for loose parts such as "tree cookies" or small branches that children can play with imaginatively. These types of areas are most common in educational environments such as botanical gardens, arboretums and zoos where educational supervisors are often present. Newly-introduced guidelines for creating nature play spaces from the National Wildlife Fund can help guide recreation managers in this area.
"When it comes to a more controlled environment, there's more opportunity for real natural materials and real nature elements," McConkey said. "Where there's less supervision like at a public park in a city or suburban neighborhoods, it's more nature-inspired as opposed to real nature." A controlled environment is also important for the use of elements like loose parts, which are otherwise vulnerable to theft.
Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of marketing and communications for a playground manufacturer based in Chattanooga, Tenn., also is seeing more natural elements being introduced to facilitate higher use and engagement than would be possible with just nature or equipment alone.
"Among many other things, nature can provide comfort, shade, loose parts for play and shelter for birds, which, along with the movement of leaves, provides sound elements to the play area," Spencer said. "Large wild grasses can create cool mazes for kids to play in."
Inspired in part by nature, more playground structures are additionally incorporating integrated shade. "There's so much more attention being placed on UV protection, and I think you're seeing a lot more of that in the base playgrounds," Reese said.
More Opportunities for Development & Choice
In addition to natural elements that can provide for more imaginative play, manufacturers are also trying to incorporate more choice into how children use playground structures. For instance, Michael Laris, director of product development for a Lewisburg, Penn., playground manufacturer, noted that this can be done by tweaking classic designs like the overhead monkey bars to give kids the opportunity to choose their own path and get on and off at different points of the structure. Features like a crow's nest can provide additional ways for kids who may be less fit to engage with and stay on the structure.
Providing options and activities that are changeable and that kids can improve at is particularly important for school playground structures that kids will use day after day. "Everybody I know mastered a slide when they were 4 years old. So what's really left to master?" Laris said. "Rope structures have grown to be popular at school because a lot of kids can get on them and they move as you affect each other's movement. Things that spin are hugely popular with kids because you can get better at it."
For similar reasons, Reese is also seeing a resurgence of rope-based elements. "There's just a better understanding by the playground developers as to what kids find exciting, and I think anything that moves, anything that's flexible, increases the challenge," Reese said. "If it moves, it's fun."
Likewise, manufacturers are finding that zip lines are reliably appealing in a variety of playground environments. "Playground zip lines are popular, and in the communities where we have installed them, it's not uncommon to see people lining up to use them," Spencer said.
As kids spend more time at home playing video games, Laris also believes that playgrounds are growing increasingly important as a way to foster real connectedness and social interaction. "We need to make sure they're still getting real eye-to-eye, hand-to-hand connectedness," he said. "So we talk a lot about how to create things that bring children together in the here and now. We very specifically try to design things that move kids together." In this respect, he sees playgrounds moving away from large, sprawling ramble platforms that lack a center point and toward designs that foster more interactivity.
Designs for All Generations
One of the biggest trends that manufacturers are seeing and implementing in their playground products is designs that are inclusive and offer multigenerational appeal. "A behavioral study was done monitoring people that use these large ramped playground systems, and found the No. 1 wheeled device to be guardians with strollers," Norquist said. "So the parents and younger kids are out there on top of these play environments while all the siblings are playing. But they're actually on the equipment."
While some urban areas are increasing construction of pocket parks in an attempt to give every child access to play, the growing protectiveness of American parents is also causing many areas to focus on the construction of destination playgrounds that are typically attended by whole families. These, in turn, are further fueling the multigenerational trend. "The kids aren't there at the park by themselves as much," Reese said. "They usually have a parent close by, and you're seeing more opportunities for the parent to engage in play with the child."
According to McConkey, more inclusive structures featuring ramps as opposed to just ladders and steps offer the added benefit of being more comforting to grandparents. They will frequently take the grandkids out for a day at the park—but may not be able to clamber up to rescue a kid perched high on a platform structure.
McConkey also sees other features that explore music or multisensory discovery activities as growing in prominence as another way to enhance multigenerational appeal. "They could include things like kaleidoscopes or seek-and-find games and activities, talk tubes or musical activities," McConkey said. "What those do is they become iconic to the playground and draw in people of different ages. There's a curiosity factor, so it can be new and novel over time."
Another approach that continues to gain momentum is the use of more linear play concepts that give kids an opportunity to explore different play areas and adults the opportunity to walk and get some exercise along the way, as opposed to just sitting on a bench.
While the use of adult fitness equipment near play areas is being seen with more regularity, it also presents some potential difficulties. Reese feels that when placed too closely to playgrounds, they can be a distraction to parents who may use them when they should be supervising their children. "The children also have a difficult time understanding the difference between that area and the playground and want to play on that, too, and it's really not designed for them from an anthropometric viewpoint," Reese said.
Instead of segregating adults from kids in this manner, many manufacturers are finding ways to bring adults and kids together through easy-on, easy-off designs. "I'd much rather make things more open-ended and accessible and approachable so that the adults aren't focused on their fitness or their iPhone while the kids are playing, but there's some interaction," Laris said.
In some cases, this is being done through equipment that is explicitly designed for adults and children to use together. Norquist cited his company's recent introduction of a swing that allows a child and an adult to swing together while facing each other as one example. In a play environment that is favoring destination parks, coming up with attractions that will motivate all ages to go to the park is increasingly important. "You've got to have a meaningful experience not just for the child, but for the parent, as well. And that will drive people into your parks," Norquist said.
Theming Gets More Sophisticated
In creating playgrounds that are more novel and sophisticated, playground manufacturers are additionally seeing clients opt for more custom theming. Spencer noted that over the past year, her company has created play spaces that look like forts, pirate ships, historic buildings, trees, castles and whale migration sites.
In many instances, communities are opting for custom themes that reflect something unique about the local environment. "It's not just play activities as much as it's seamless play and learning at the same time," McConkey said. "So it could be an event of historical significance to that community, something that's iconic. Maybe they were a railroad town, so it's a railroad-themed play area." Or it could be a theme that includes statues of animals that are native to the area. Recent examples McConkey has worked on have included Southwestern desert-themed playgrounds and a Northwoods-themed playground with moose, porcupine and raccoon statues.
The more imaginatively themed parks are most often seen in destination parks or centrally located parks in a community. "In smaller settings, we sometimes see a couple of different pieces that might be themed, or an individual piece like a standalone tractor in a farm theme," McConkey said.
Manufacturers are additionally seeing the trend extend toward art you can play on. "You may have a manufacturer partnering with an artist or an artist partnering with someone who's a certified playground safety instructor in working on individual interesting pieces of playful art," Norquist said.
Through aesthetically pleasing sculptural elements, some of these types of structures give kids the ability to be creative and explore while still climbing and being active. "It's much more open-ended," said Laris of his company's play sculpture products. "You can meet, you can hang out, you can climb. For smaller kids, there are places to hide or pretend play … it's kind of explore as you will."
The artistic elements of playground design are additionally being enhanced through growing attention to things like casting shadows and the creative use of color in surfacing. "Our surfacing manufacturers at IPEMA are just doing a fantastic job of creating what I call a playful landscape," Norquist said. "That's a really cool trend where you're getting some play value out of what was there for safety reasons."
The use of color is diversifying beyond the cartoony tones of the past. Laris believes this might, in part, be reflective of an internationalization of playground designs. "We have tended to have slides for the smaller kids but then the same slides and colors for the big kids," Laris said. "I think maybe internationally there's a different look at childhood and a respect for the fact that these kids are beyond masses of purple and pink. They want something that's kind of cool like the other things that are in their life."
As McConkey sees more playgrounds adopt natural tones, he's also seeing them embrace nature-inspired colors that go beyond greens and browns. "We're seeing things like tangerine, limon, even colors that are paprika or peacock or grass or berry—options that reflect a really natural-looking color palette," McConkey said.
Places for All to Play
As playground designs increasingly cater to a multigenerational audience and become a place for the whole family to play and connect, manufacturers have responded with a diversification of structure types with more sophisticated designs that are suitable for a more prominent role in parks and other environments.
"Probably the most important thing is to not just put play off into the corner of the park," Laris said. "Playgrounds are a place of coming together. They're a social place where people meet. It's the old square of old days where people can actually talk to each other. Play is important as a glue to society. So, instead of isolating it, integrate it."
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