Modern Playgrounds Create Fun Family Outings
By Rick Dandes
There is a revolution going on in modern playground design and equipment. Simple swings and slides have evolved into today's sophisticated play equipment that ensures safety, accessibility and inclusivity. And the playground itself has been re-imagined, morphing into a community space and a family destination.
"We have been seeing the growth of larger, customized playgrounds over the past year," observed Greg Harrison, chief marketing officer for a major playground equipment manufacturer in Huntersville, N.C. As a trend, he continued, "People are looking to build destination playgrounds and really making it a centerpiece for their park, to draw people in from all around."
That's exactly what Chuck Stifter, director of parks and recreation, Maple Grove Parks and Recreation, Minn., learned through surveys and talking with area residents. "We asked people what they wanted in park facilities and recreational experiences, and it seems that in the age of social media people want a place that is a destination. A place where they can take pictures of themselves and their families having a great time. It's so much about having a unique experience. What's difficult about that, I think, is that you can't have that everywhere. It's a great challenge."
The experience begins with the evolution of the play environment. "We are seeing several new trends in outdoor recreational play environments that include providing more challenging play components and systems for children ages 5 to 12," said Michele Chandler, director of marketing, specialty play group, of a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based family of brands that combines educational programming with play and recreation products and services. Those play environments include "American Ninja Warrior"-inspired elements, as well as addressing the emerging new category of active playgrounds for adults, Chandler said. "Challenging playground designs that include unique climbing elements such as ropes, cables, nets and spinners, designed to mimic 'Spartan' type events, continue to be the most requested. The beauty of these designs is that they can also be enjoyed by adults, producing a multigenerational aspect to the play environment. We are also seeing different variations of zip lines and track rides that run both parallel and in circular paths, no doubt inspired by many high ropes courses found across the country."
We asked people what they wanted in park facilities and recreational experiences, and it seems that in the age of social media people want a place that is a destination.
In the swings arena, she said, parent and child swings continue to be a hot seller, allowing face-to-face eye contact between both users.
Agreeing with Chandler is Scott Roschi, creative director of a Delano, Minn.-based equipment manufacturer. "Kids want to be challenged. Probably the number one thing for kids that I am seeing focuses on height—safely getting kids up higher. And giving them challenging ways to do that. As a result, we're providing a lot of rope climbing elements," Roschi said. "That allows us to offer something to a child developing physically, using their whole bodies in ways that they wouldn't if they were using stairs, for example."
Everybody wants to go higher, agreed Harrison. "I think we've gotten to a place in our industry where people are thinking of the notion of perceived risk, certainly not literal risk. An example would be the development of towers. In the 1990s, our company came out with towers, so now all of us, our company and competitors, are thinking, how do we bring height, in the sense of getting up off the ground into playground design?
"We also see a lot of park and recreation departments in certain areas of the country committed to adventure ropes-style courses," Harrison continued. "We want to bring that sense of thrill to the playground. A great example of that in the last year is that [we] brought out a high structure—a multi, high heights structure that is enclosed; so, while you are 20 feet high up in the air, it is enclosed and safe. This brings a whole level of excitement and challenge to users."
One of his company's playground designs, he added, includes everything needed for hours of play, including different climbers, slides and decks that allow children to safely play far off the ground. From skyscraper-like towers that are nearly 30 feet tall to rope-course inspired skyways, the equipment pushes the limits of play into great heights.
Other trends to watch for include freestanding play that provides opportunities to add individual pieces to a play environment with a smaller investment, while still creating a fresh new addition to the space.
"One of the freestanding emerging trends includes music parks," Chandler said, spaces where multiple generations of users can enjoy playing a variety of metallophones, drums and chimes in an orchestra-like setting.
Music parks not only provide interactive play, she explained, "but they also bring an artistic, architectural aesthetic to a park or community space. They are also a fantastic inclusive play element as there are so many ways to engage, play an instrument, sing along, dance or simply observe the action. Themed play is still important, she explained, as many parks try to capture specific cultural aspects of their community in a design, or to honor a specific heritage, event or person."
Another trend in modern playground design centers on integrating play into the overall physical environment, essentially incorporating natural elements into the play space. Typically, in the past, Roschi explained, "playgrounds were just physically placed into a space, but now there is more collaboration between landscape architects and playground design companies to truly build in hill slides and different types of climbing using the topography that may already be there. Or they may actually create a topography to allow for different types of play than would have been traditionally seen in the past."
In the spring of 2013, Maple Grove, Minn., made plans for a new central park in the center of town. A large 40-plus-acre parcel of land and pond was acquired just east of the library and town green in what was formerly a gravel pit.
Maple Grove is about 12 miles from Minneapolis. This urban-like, community park was conceived as another piece of the larger comprehensive plan to create a vibrant walkable city center that linked residents to the many available amenities, including the community center, town green, library, government center and the Arbor Lakes shopping district. The concept plan identified a large open lawn, event space, gardens, active play areas, water features and an ice skating loop.
The community park was built with other features, said Stifter, including a multi-seasonal park building that serves as the park's hub, a spacious central lawn for hosting community events, a splash pad, a large play area with many vibrant and cleverly designed play elements, an outdoor skating area, a wedding garden, a courts area for basketball and pickleball, and a network of trails and walks that provide excellent walking and biking opportunities as well as easy access from the surrounding neighborhoods.
"We were lucky enough at Central Park to do something special and really create a destination facility that we thought was that type of experience for users, said Stifter. "The site is very loved and appreciated by the users, and they want more of it. We are currently going through our system plan for the entire operation, which we do every 10 years, and the demands of the public, when we reach out to them to tell us what they think, keep getting higher and higher. They want those types of facilities everywhere."
What makes Maple Grove interesting and exciting is that it isn't just a structure where all components are in one contraption, Stifter said. It's split off. There are zones of play and they are separated by space, landscaping and topography. The design makes it like a park with play equipment components spread out so it can hold a lot more people, he said. "It was easier for caregivers to be in the space and experience some of the recreation with their children and yet not feel that they were on the apparatus. It was a really nice design. And I'd like to do more of them. The park is super popular and brings in people from all over the state. It's become a destination in both summer and winter."
Maple Grove's Central Park is different from the other parks in the community, Stifter emphasized. "The community parks are intended to be destinations, to bring in lots of people. In this particular one there is an urban feel, where housing is really tight around the edges and it was designed in that manner, so it doesn't have any athletic facilities, like almost every one of our other parks, which have either a baseball or a soccer field. This one is unique in that it doesn't have any of those things. It has gardens and open lawn, a big pavilion—things that will bring people in, but not for sports."
The importance of inclusive play environments continues to gain momentum as more and more parks, schools and communities recognize the valuable cultural benefits and social equity they provide to the local users.
In the past several years, said Roschi, "the biggest change I've seen in playground philosophy is about how play is looked at, and the way communities are seeing the need to bring play back to the community."
What should you be keeping an eye out for? "Well," he said, "we are seeing more of these destination playgrounds, bringing whole communities together and creating play spaces where children of all abilities are able to play side by side."
Playgrounds are becoming community gathering places. "We are starting to see in some of these destination playgrounds a place where moms' groups meet, while their children play together and develop both physical and social skills."
Three-year-old Zachary Blakemore provided the original inspiration behind Zachary's Playground, in Lake Saint Louis, said Darren Noelken, parks and recreation director, City of Lake Saint Louis, Mo. (Its actual name is Zachary's Playground at Hawk Ridge Park.)
Zachary suffers from a rare genetic central nervous system disease (Pelizaeus Merzbacher disease) that confines him to a wheelchair or assistive walking device. But like all children, Zachary loves to play.
"When his mother Natalie would take Zachary to the park to play, the playground would only emphasize his limitations," Noelken said. "And even more frustrating was the fact that the playground's barriers that stopped him from playing also prevented him from interacting with the other children."
But after visiting an accessible playground while traveling to the East Coast, Zachary's parents began to dream of creating an accessible playground in Zachary's hometown—and of the day when playgrounds like this would exist for children everywhere. They teamed with Zachary's pediatric speech therapist, and Unlimited Play was born in 2003.
Unlimited Play is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that helped design and fundraise for the playground. The St. Charles County Developmental Disabilities Review Board's support and funding was also instrumental in making this playground a reality. Many local businesses and organizations made contributions to the project as well.
Zachary's Playground opened in 2007 with specially designed play features, a rubberized surface and, later, a splash pad. The playground was one of the first of its kind in the St. Louis area and became a "destination" attraction for local families and those from other parts of the country.
The playground includes the following: a castle and boat theme for imaginative play; traditional, toddler and ADA-accessible swings; a fully accessible splash pad for those hot summer days; a music selection for auditory stimulation and creativity; fully ramped toddler and 5-to-12 play sections; a climbing net complete with custom seats; a rollerslide and metal slides for those with cochlear implants; and an accessible "flush to floor entrance" merry-go-round.
It is a destination playground, Noelkin said. "I've talked to families from as far away as a 45-minute drive, who came to spend the day at Zachary's. There are many times throughout the year that area schools or day care facilities bus their children over to enjoy the playground and our park. The pavilion has a charcoal barbecue pit, eight picnic tables and electrical outlets. It is near the playground, spray pad and heated restrooms."
The Future of Play
To validate the physical, cognitive and emotional developmental benefits of play, Chandler explained, "our company takes a multi-disciplined approach to research. We partner with both scholars and experts to evaluate evidence-based findings that not only help inform product designs, but also provide communities with tools to help them develop meaningful, research-based projects."
Challenging play events will continue to emerge in the coming years as play manufacturers strive to maintain engagement.
At the brand level, Chandler noted, "we use the research to observe designs in use, including evaluating anthropometrics, measurement of primary dimensional descriptors of body size and shape, creating full-size models for child product testing, and observation in the field for user experience. All these factors, coupled with empirical data, help us to produce components and structures that generate challenge and enjoyment, along with sustained use."
Roschi suggests doing research with different partners. "As we start to prototype different ideas," he said, "we'll bring children into our facilities and have them try out new things. In that way you can have the pulse on what kids like, and the best part of all of that is they are not going to lie and tell you something is fun if it isn't. They are very honest. If they don't like something, they will tell us that is the case."
But Roschi's company also partners with the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorders in Denver, and one of the key things they are doing is studying children on the autism spectrum. The STAR Institute uses play as part of therapy.
"With their partnership," Roschi said, "we have been able to look at how important play can be in helping these children develop through play, and that has been done partially through observing videos of children participating with the caregivers, and in many cases, their parents. We know how play is important from a physical standpoint, but are really starting to see how play helps development in some of those other skills has been an important influence on the design we do, both from a product design standpoint and how we lay out playgrounds for a community. We try to bring all of that knowledge back to every project we do."
Where do we go from here?
Chandler believes challenging play events will continue to emerge in the coming years as play manufacturers strive to maintain engagement with an ever-growing population of tech-savvy kids who increasingly look for stimulating activities that keep their interest. The onus will be on manufacturers to design these activities with the right balance of excitement, risk and safety.
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