Water Fun For Everyone

Aquatic Play Gets 'Smart'

By Rick Dandes

As public and private splash play areas at waterparks and in municipalities across the country reopen, designers remain focused on inclusivity, offering new, creative approaches to play, using the latest in technologies to enhance the user experience, while adhering to safety guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"What we are seeing happen in aquatic play is a focus on the bigger picture of inclusivity and the overall lifecycle of the play space," said Shanley Hutchinson, creative manager at a supplier and innovator of water play solutions based in Kelowna, British Columbia. "This is less of a trend, and more of a movement."

Water naturally draws people in, which makes splash play a great addition to the community fabric because it creates a meeting point where people from all walks of life can visit and spend a few hours, Hutchinson explained.

"Public splash pads provide an inclusive play environment to water players of all ages and abilities," she continued. "If designed right, with appropriate spacing between play elements that comfortably fit a walker or wheelchair, and paths of play that encourages flow throughout the space, the splash pad becomes a hub where everyone can experience joy, from grandparents looking to connect with their grandchildren in a meaningful way to families looking to connect within their community and get outdoors."

The splash pad is truly a place for everyone, she said. The best public aquatic play spaces will provide a diverse range of play features to suit all play styles and abilities, from toddlers looking for soft, predictable water patterns, to thinkers who like to problem-solve, kids who feel more comfortable engaging in imagination alongside a caretaker or friend, and those with limited mobility.

"Yes, it does seem like everyone is focused on maximizing play value," added Kelsi Goss, vice president of design for a Minneapolis-based provider of safe surfacing for aquatic play areas. "And while we, as a company, only deal with surface design, we've noted spray-feature manufacturers looking to diversify their offerings to appeal to guests of all ages. For instance, smaller, simpler ground sprays to engage with the younger crowd and then products ranging all the way up to massive play structures with waterslides and dump buckets for more adventurous and older kids."

Inclusive design is by far the leading trend in splash pad design, said Aaron Skogen, general manager of a Delano, Minn.-based aquatic play designer and manufacturer. "Clients," he said, "are looking to design for inclusion and interactive play that seeks to create opportunities for teamwork, socializing and problem-solving. The splash pad at Parkersburg City Park in Parkersburg, W.V., provides a great example of water play for all.

"Our project team," Skogen said, "considered the placement of spray features throughout the space to welcome individuals of all abilities."

Additionally, he said, around the dynamic spray play elements there are opportunities for kids to step back and have a calming moment. To facilitate this, the spray pad included a visual cue in the surfacing design. The blue ribbon mimics the nearby Ohio and Little Kanawha Rivers and tells users that activities with gentle flows are in or just beyond that mark. To further embrace inclusive team and group spray play, the design included an interactive water table that brings individuals of all physical and cognitive abilities together to learn and socialize.

Bigger & Better

Another trend in spray play is the very size of splash pads. Bigger is better, from the features to the water splash, Hutchinson explained. "However, bigger doesn't always equal inclusive. While big splashes inspire decision-makers looking to plan exciting attractions in their community, it cannot be the only focus of the play space."

Historically, splash pads have been smaller domestic pass-through systems, Skogen said, but more communities are designing expansive aquatic play spaces, with larger splash pads that utilize recirculation systems.

For example, he said, "The splash pad at Burrus Old Mill Park in Blue Spring, Mo., installed a more than 4,600 square-foot splash pad in 2019. Not only does it feature custom water play components, but it also uses a recirculation system. The benefit of this system type is that the splash pad uses less water while still producing a 'big water' experience for visitors to the splash pad."

A return to nature is a trend noticed by Barb Lapierre, regional sales manager at a Pointe-Claire, Quebec-based manufacturer of splash pads and aquatic play products. "More and more designs are beginning to mimic natural streams and currents and include a natural look that blends with the surrounding landscapes."

Lapierre also mentioned the idea of 'staycations': "Families are looking for more opportunities for staycation amenities," she observed. "We are seeing outdoor parks and aquatic centers taking notes from commercial waterparks and including rentable cabanas and concession stands within their facilities; this helps to provide a new source for revenue generation. We are also noticing a trend to transform municipal pools into activity hubs by utilizing the open space around existing pool area, and adding to their programming needs and providing play experiences for the entire family."

Many communities are looking to refresh their outdated wading pools or aquatic facilities, she said, and are replacing these with splash pads and aquatic play, increasing engagement, and addressing compliance issues, not to mention significantly reducing their overall operational costs.

Get 'Smart'

Adding smart technologies to splash pad designs, through advancements in products and mechanical equipment, "is one of the biggest trends in the past couple of years," Lapierre said. These technologies are not only meant to keep up with the "smart" parks of today by being able to monitor all different types of usage remotely, they also lend themselves to more engaging play value and a higher level of entertainment.

For example, Lapierre said, "controllers now have the ability to remotely monitor resources and control the splash pad flow, hours, and days of operation, with built-in fail-safes that will ramp the splash pad down or turn it off in the case of extreme weather conditions. Then too, adding LED lighting and creating more fountain-like play experiences—these types of new technologies help facilitate longer playtimes and change daytime splash pads into beautiful evening venues for the whole family to enjoy," she said.

Safety First

Splash pads are zero-depth, meaning that the water drains away and there is no need for lifeguards or a risk of drowning, Hutchinson said, about safety. "The safest splash pads feature play elements that are designed adhering to the leading safety standards in the industry, along with a layout that promotes engaging play zoned to encourage similar styles of play in each area.

"This means that water players can play alongside one another without the risk of feeling intimidated or discouraged," she said. "A well-designed play space should enable every water player to explore and challenge themselves both mentally and physically. The goal of play is that children learn life skills through their experiences in recreation. When we discourage them testing their abilities and limitations, we also discourage their growth and development. Well-designed zero-depth splash pads are perfect environments for engaging free play and exploration."

Splash pads provide the community an alternate outdoor aquatic activity other than going to a pool, which is especially important for children who don't know how to swim, said Lapierre. They have no standing water, which means no risk of drowning. No lessons are needed.

Meanwhile, she continued, "there are no climbing structures, so no fall heights to be concerned with, unlike a playground. All designs include features that meet or exceed AS™ standards."

There are also no trip hazards or pinch points, and although they can also be designed to offer a fountain-like appeal, the nozzle orifice sizes are designed so that there are no possibilities for finger entrapment—unlike a traditional fountain.

Added signage should be included to advise users of typical rules of playing in the park area and on the splash pad, Lapierre added. For example, signs should advise that younger children be accompanied by a parent, that no eating, drinking or glass is allowed, and that children younger than 2 must wear swim diapers. In addition, she said, some communities are adding new regulations to their signage to deal with COVID-19, such as maintenance schedules, physical distancing regulations and capacity rules.

To further boost safety, Goss suggests that surfacing designed specifically for aquatic play be considered in lieu of concrete surfaces. Splash pads are still fairly new, she said, so they haven't been regulated in the way that playgrounds have been. "We've seen a ton of slip and fall injuries as a result of that, at some points even causing splash pads to shut down, and it's really unfortunate."

Until now, Goss noted, concrete has been the standard, "but I believe it's not really ideal in these environments. It can either be very abrasive or it can be very slippery. Kids tend to run and fall in these spaces no matter what, and falling onto a hard surface like concrete really does them a disservice. You also have very young children, their parents and their grandparents all looking to enjoy splash pads so it makes much more sense to look into using safety surfacing in these spaces."

Goss suggests foam-rubber tile products with a non-abrasive texture, which offers slip-resistance and impact cushioning in ways that concrete simply can't.

As of last fall, Goss explained, "there's a new surfacing standard for aquatic play areas that's gone into effect through NSF/ANSI 50. It recommends using a safer surface that is well-suited for aquatic environments in terms of both durability and cleanability."

The standard focuses on six performance criteria. The first two are the major ones: slip resistance and impact attenuation. The next two, UV and chemical resistance, look at whether a material will hold up when exposed to sun and harsh chemicals in an aquatic environment. And lastly, it assesses cleanability and impermeability to make sure that an approved surface can easily be cleaned of contaminants.

Post-COVID Considerations

The current pandemic has affected us globally, Hutchinson said, "and as some areas are working through reopening in phases that align with their local government recommendations, others are still restricting many social activities and gathering spaces."

The best way to determine what's safe in any community, she said, is to look to the local health authorities and follow their lead. "The very cool thing about a splash pad is that you can engage with the play elements without being hands-on with any physical element."

According to the CDC, Skogen added, there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of recreational waters. However, the CDC provides guidance to encourage healthy hygiene of visitors to aquatic facilities including washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet away from people you don't live with, and staying home if you or someone in your household is feeling ill.

High-touch surfaces, such as the water features themselves, should be cleaned routinely.

"We encourage our customers to review their team's protocols and procedures for cleaning public spaces," Lapierre said. "Consider shutting down your splash pad at regular intervals during operating hours to thoroughly clean and disinfect indoor aquatic play features, and clean outdoor features."

Facilities should be assessing whether their splash pad surfaces lend themselves to being easily cleaned, Goss added. RM

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