Playgrounds That Pop

Building a Better Playground

By Rick Dandes

When you want to exceed expectations and create a playground with a huge "wow" factor, think outside of the traditional post-and-platform structure. Be a destination for play by creating a playground with a theme. Build a playground that acts as a pathway into nature by utilizing your surrounding environment. Tell a story. Be dramatic. Engage your entire community of users. Be inclusive as a destination for children, and even adults of all ages and abilities.

That's the advice given by playground builders and manufacturers when asked about trends and concepts in current playground designing.

It wasn't always that way, said Kent Callison, director of marketing communications, for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based manufacturer of play equipment "For decades," Callison said, "a playground was just a series of posts and platforms with the occasional ladder and slide attached. You might find a whirl or a set of swings there, too. This is a fairly traditional thought process many people outside our industry have about building a playground: provide activities for children, help them stay active and run out their excess energy."

There's nothing wrong with that kind of thinking, per se, Callison noted. "It provides an important role in childhood development. But playgrounds can be much more than a set of swings and a slide. They can truly inspire imaginations, create social equity by encouraging people of all ages and abilities to play together, and help children develop socially, emotionally and physically along a developmental continuum as they grow older."

Playgrounds can be community centerpieces that bring people together, break down social and economic barriers, and give people a place to truly connect with the outdoors and with one another, he said. There's nothing else in our society that possesses so great a power to transform everyone equally.

Sarah Lisiecki, marketing communications and education specialist for a play manufacturer based in Fond du Lac, Wis., added to that line of thinking. "In the past," she said, "the school of thought was that play was for children, and it was all about fun. Well, play is certainly for children and it is about fun, but it is also the way children learn, process feelings and develop a variety of skills that transcend the play space."

And play is for everyone of all ages and necessary through all stages of life, she explained. "Because of this, many past play spaces weren't focused on community or intergenerational engagement. Realizing the power of play to connect, develop and help people move in all stages of life has changed the way we approach play space and product design. The focus is more holistic now."

We have never as a society been more sedentary, or spent more of our time indoors, added Ian Proud, director of insights and outreach, outdoor play, for a playground manufacturer in Lewisburg, Pa. "We are not an on-the-ground builder, so I look at things from the perspective of what I've seen our partners do," he said.

According to a National Human Activity Pattern study that looked at how people spend their time, 93% of the average American's time is spent indoors. Another 6% is spent in vehicles.

"That only leaves 3% of our time in the outdoors," Proud said. "There is competition in those hours for family time to go to a playground or park. There are so many other things to do. So, what I think is happening in the market is playgrounds are offering more visual drama, to make that experience a good investment of their precious time outside the house."

There is a renewed focus on returning to the outdoors and the benefits of outdoor play in a variety of developmental areas, added Lisiecki. "Spending time outdoors is again being recognized as a simple and fun way to help children-and adults-reduce stress, increase focus and keep moving to help achieve the recommended level of daily exercise."

Well-designed recreation spaces offer a place for communities to gather together and engage, Lisiecki continued. "No matter age or ability, having a space that fosters intergenerational engagement helps people and communities thrive. It's something that people look for when they decide which communities to call home. Parks and playgrounds attract residents and businesses, drive visitors to a destination and have a positive economic impact on communities. They even positively affect property values by 5 to 20%."

Having recreation spaces is an all-around win for communities, their residents, businesses and visitors. Community leaders, corporations and others are seeing this and beginning to invest accordingly in these spaces, Lisiecki said.

Be Multigenerational

Whether a community is looking for an inclusive play area, a fitness park or small playground for a pocket park, one thing that comes up again and again is the idea of making sure it is a place all generations can interact with one another, Callison said.

"I recently toured about 20 playgrounds across the country, from Southern Alabama to Eastern Washington," he said, "and there was an interesting thing I observed at every location: Parents are playing with their children more than ever. There was a study by Professor Tanya Byron in (August) 2010 in which she learned about 20% of parents had 'forgotten how to play.' A decade ago, most so-called millennials weren't yet parents. But today, most of the adults I saw on the playground with children were part of the millennial generation. They actively engaged in climbing, sliding, spinning and just enjoying a moment of play."

Designing a playground today, Callison suggests, "has to include ways for parents to get involved. Find activities that encourage parents and children to play together. There are many products and design features you can add to a play space to encourage this kind of multigenerational activity. As more parents engage in play, we need to find ways to make sure they do. I'd like to see the number of engaged parents go up instead of down."

Be Inclusive

Inclusivity is also a growing commitment by parks and rec departments and other providers when it comes to playgrounds. Families with children with disabilities have asked for support, and parks and rec departments want to work to include elements in their playgrounds that suit children of all abilities.

According to Lisa Annis, marketing ninja for a Minneapolis-based builder of custom playgrounds, playgrounds have been required to meet ADA requirements for many years. However, those requirements are very basic and translate to a sea of ramps on a traditional post-and-platform playground.

"We look to design environments that not only allow access to children with disabilities, but that also challenge them in play and encourage play between children with and without disabilities," she said. "A design environment might include climbers that are transferable by wheelchair and that take children with disabilities to new heights, quiet areas positioned away from high traffic for children with autism, slides built to resist electrostatic discharge (ESD) for children with cochlear devices and transitional colors and textures for children with visual impairments."

Todd Lehman, founder, owner and self-described 'design guy' at the same Minneapolis-based company, said the biggest challenge he sees with an inclusive playground "is to not have it look like it is just a sea of ramps. We work hard not to hide ramps, but to work them seamlessly into the overall design. The idea is to bring children of all abilities together, not to separate them."

A good example of that kind of playground design thinking is Casey's Clubhouse, in Boyce Mayview Park, Upper St. Clair, Pa., near Pittsburgh. The playground features custom aluminum fabricated slides safe for children with cochlear implants, equipment to address walking impairments, multiple educational and musical elements including a baseball bat metallophone, transfer-accessible climbers and wheelchair-accessible play at higher elevations. The Clubhouse also has several elements to address children with visual impairments such as transition colors to indicate changes in elevation and steps as well as embossed 3-D discovery finds in a large majority of the play equipment.

"Inclusivity is certainly a trend we hope is more than a trend and becomes a standard approach for play design," Lisiecki said. "We've also experienced a return to bringing a sense of adventure and age-appropriate risk-taking to the play space," such as with towers that create a climbing and sliding experience that is adventurous, developmentally rich and gives kids a way to challenge themselves.

The 'Wow' Effect

Municipalities and school districts typically come in with a fixed budget and an idea based on what they've seen at other parks, Annis said. "They choose post-and-platform playgrounds because they are repeatable and comprised of ready-to-ship product. They typically require less budget, but they are also typically unoriginal."

"Tell a story," said Lehman. "The playground industry has gotten to the point where it is like a box of Legos, where you have all these different parts and colors to choose from and a lot of the design is based around engineering. Engineering drives the design: How can we make this as modular as possible so it can be built quickly?"

Once you understand the story, the idea, then the playground structure can tell the story, and the design unfolds from there, Lehman said. "The idea for Casey's Clubhouse was that people in that community are into baseball. At PNC Park, where the Pittsburgh Pirates play, when you stand at home plate, it overlooks downtown Pittsburgh. The kids built their own downtown Pittsburgh with scrap materials. In our playground when you are standing at home plate you see the re-creation of downtown Pittsburgh. You see the bridge, the PNC building, all these iconic buildings and so the actual play environment, along with the surfacing is downtown Pittsburgh." That evoked a large "wow" with users, Lehman said.

"There is an increasing value placed on originality," Lehman continued. "The current generations of kids have the ability to customize their own shoes, T-shirts, sports gear and their own personal brand through social media, apps and more. They value originality and unique identity, and they want their surrounding world to do the same. To go to a unique site, a unique playground, and have them post an image that says something about it, it can drive budgeting for municipalities. They are a factor in the decision-making. If it is more visible to the community, then it is perceived to be more valuable."

There are many ways to create a wow effect with a playground design, Callison added, "but they aren't all limited to visual experiences. For many families, when going to a park or a playground, they want to see something for every member of the family, from 8 years old to 80. One of the ways to provide this is with fitness equipment. Many communities choose to install fitness equipment and obstacle courses adjacent to traditional playgrounds. This is another way they address the need for multigenerational recreation and play. While younger children are playing on a playground, parents or adult caregivers can exercise nearby."

It's important to make sure the fitness area or obstacle course meets the ASTM standards for fitness spaces and is in a separate area from the play space, but by having them within compliant proximity, you create tremendous opportunities for people of all ages to realize the benefits of outdoor play.

A challenge course, Callison suggested, gives the entire family the opportunity to be active together. "It's a fun and friendly way to compete with one another or against the clock. And visually, they do look really cool. Imagine pulling up to a park and seeing something that looks like a Ninja Warrior course from a television show. That kind of visual appeal really draws people into a space. And the fun of it, keeps them coming back time after time."

Speaking of visual appeal, Callison said, look for ways to create custom play activities that match the playground to the community in some way. "In Kennewick, Wash., for example, the community is known for a hydroplane race held on the Columbia River every year for 50 years. They also have a lighthouse along the river and an iconic bridge. We designed a playground that brought together all of these elements into the design of the playground to make it personalized for the community and to connect people with their city in a fun and playful way."

Another project, involving the National Zoo at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., was meant to be an extension of the museum itself-a learning experience about bees and their role in our environment, Callison explained. "We designed the space as a playful exhibit, with a massive honeycomb entryway, larger than life flowers and bees, a giant tree and plenty of educational signage throughout the space. Children and families visit the playground/exhibit every day. They run, climb and laugh together, all while learning about the importance of bees in the environment."

Finally, in Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles, designers used a combination of modern-looking playground equipment with bright colors to create a space that captures your eye and imagination the moment you arrive. The play structures are open and encourage parents and adult caregivers to get involved in play. The brightly colored safety surfacing is soft and cushiony and complements the equally vibrant shade structures that keep everything cooler and more comfortable.

There many factors associated with designing a playground that wows the community, Callison said. "Of course, budget is a consideration, and you always have to be sensitive to the budgetary, and sometimes space, restrictions of a municipality."

But there is more than $300 billion in grants and funding available in the United States from organizations committed to helping communities create play and recreation spaces, he noted.

The biggest factor is making sure the play area is based on valid and current research on childhood development, physical and social wellness, accessibility. Create play areas and places that align with best practices to make sure everyone benefits from the play space to the greatest extent possible. This, to make a lasting impact to enhance the quality of life for children and families for decades to come.

Go Viral

Once you have that playground opening, post news of it. Social media is always a factor, said Proud. "These days it seems, if you can't post something on Instagram, it never happened," he said. To go to a unique site, a unique playground and have them post an image that says something about it, and it can drive budgeting for municipalities. They are a factor in the decision-making. If it is more visible to the community then it is perceived to be more valuable.

"Playgrounds and parks have to have those outdoor amenities that are social-media-friendly are going to get viewers." Proud said. "And ultimately, friends will tell friends via Instagram or other social media, about the playground."

Playgrounds are becoming more dramatic in order to be more social media friendly, and attract people out of the house, Proud said. RM



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