Growing up, we had one playground in the area that all kids flocked to. It was not within walking distance from my house, so when my mom packed us up and hauled us to the Community Center, it was a real treat. I specifically remember a turtle climber looking thing that you could get underneath and on top of. It was my favorite spot on the playground. It was a ship, a car, a house, a vet hospital, and a rocket all rolled into one. There were other play events there, but that was my favorite. Do you know why? Because it was whatever I wanted it to be. I didn’t see it as an old, crusty, concrete turtle that got WAY to hot in the summer. I seen it as my castle in the sky where I could be a fairy princess and rule my kingdom. It was my trusty pirate ship, and I was the only girl pirate captain across the seven seas. What happened to this? What happened to playgrounds that focused on imagination rather than safety standards, accessibility guidelines, and meeting mandatory regulations? What happened to playgrounds that were fun, challenging, and promoted imaginative play?
Play space design has become a black hole for imagination. Budget cuts, increased material costs, increased demand on safety, changes in ADA regulations, and playground companies battling for the lowest costs to win bids has completely diminished the value of the playground. Kids are bored. They don’t like playgrounds because they are cookie cutter models of themselves. Every playground company has the same stuff, just with their own little spin on it. Posts, decks, roofs, slides, panels, climbers. That is the play structure across the board, in a nutshell.
We as parents, caregivers, and role models, are allowing our kids more and more screen time. I cannot tell you how many times I have taken my daughter to the playground and watched as parents handed a toddler in a stroller their phone because they just wanted them to be quiet for a minute. We are enablers. We are allowing our kids to focus on screens rather than play. At the same time, professionals are designing playgrounds that are boring, and kids don’t care to check them out. They would rather play the newest version of Angry Birds.
What can we do as professionals to ensure this doesn’t happen? DESIGN BETTER PLAYGROUNDS PEOPLE! Don’t look at, “Oh, well I don’t have enough money to do that.” Or, “Oh, well we have to have a million ramps that cost a million dollars to meet accessibility guidelines.” Budgets are the biggest killers of playground dreams. However, there are ways around budgets. I have been designing and building playgrounds for a while now. I know there are loopholes in the system that can help a community, school, or church get an awesome playground for little cost. Do you know what the biggest cost on a play structure is? Decks. So get rid of them. By eliminating decks, you make your play events ground level (helping you achieve accessibility requirements by the way), and it keeps your cost down. It also helps you create a creative and unique play environment. You don’t always have to just use independents to achieve this. You can also do this with a composite play structure! That’s right! You can get a very cool looking play structure with no decks. Here is one we are installing for a home owners association in Fishers, Indiana this summer:
This particular playground had a price tag under $30k, and it looks awesome! It has a ton of great play events, and combines the posts and roofs of a traditional PlayBooster structure, and the events of a modern looking Evos structure. Nearly all of the play events are ground level, making it meet ADA guidelines. This is not a cookie cutter, everyday, post and deck structure. It is eye catching, challenging, and does not have a huge price tag!
That’s great for big kids right? What about the little ones? Most small children (ages 6 months – 5 years) have such a huge difference in developmental abilities that creating a play structure for them is nearly an impossibility. The CPSC and ASTM standards have divided these two groups into 6-23 months and 2-5 years. But when I look at a 2 year old’s capabilities versus my 5 year old’s, there is an astronomical difference. How do I create a space that caters to all of these without causing a hiccup in safety standards? That’s easy. Independent play! This wouldn’t be ideal for bigger kids, but for the little ones it is the perfect solution. You can combine a number of independent play pieces and make a playground that caters to both groups. This is also a very inexpensive option, helping cater to budget conscious projects.
Have a little extra cash? Go for themes! The push toward custom, awe-inspiring, natural and modern playgrounds has really seen a lot of momentum in recent years. Keep in mind that any themed playground is going to come with a hefty price tag. But if you can swing the budget, as Dr. Seuss would say, “Oh the places you can go!” Here is one medieval themed playground featuring a nesting dragon by Landscape Structures:
The custom design team at Landscape Structures combined a material called glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC), Evos components, PlayBooster components, and custom details in the metal working to create this one of a kind piece. The playground is unique, exciting, and a destination for the community it serves! With this playground, kids have the ability to immerse themselves in play. They can be in the movie, “How to Train Your Dragon.” They can be Eragon riding Saphira from the book series “Inheritance,” by Christopher Paolini. The point is, themed playgrounds boost imaginative play that is crucial to a child’s mental and physical development.
Another great theme is Natural Play. Natural play space design has really ramped up in the last few years. I have written about the importance of a child’s connection to nature in past blogs. Kids need nature. They need grass and trees. They need lakes and fields. They need fresh air and yes, even snow. It connects them with the world around them. Kids playing outside helps them develop a love for nature and animals. It also fights childhood obesity. A child that goes outside and plays, instead of sitting on their backsides for hours a day, is more likely to be healthy and fit. Natural play has also been a key player in fighting childhood depression and bullying. Urban sprawl, slashed recess times, the ever changing world of technology, and less time spent at home, has caused kids to loose touch with the world around them. However, communities, churches, daycares, and schools are working with playground equipment manufacturers to combat this problem. They are working together to create natural spaces for kids to explore.
Since some things found in nature are not allowed on a playground (ridiculous I know), equipment manufacturers are using materials found on standard playground equipment and turning into something nature inspired. To the left is a tree house located at Rossford Park in Fort Thomas, Kentucky. It is made out of GFRC, digitally imaged wood grain posts, giant net spider webs, and tree stumps and logs made out of concrete. It is as much a play structure as it is a piece of art. Is that grass underneath? It sure isn’t! Regular grass is not approved as a safety surfacing for playgrounds, but turf is! Play turf is being used a lot more frequently. Expecially in daycares, and natural play environment settings.
As designers, when we look at playgrounds we need to look at what the playground is going to do for the kids. Our adult mentality focuses more on how we can keep from getting sued rather than what is best for the kids. It is that mentality that has really “dumbed down” the playground, so to speak. Kids are not challenged, they’re bored, and they are turning to video games or trouble to hold their attention. Lets build playgrounds to build bodies and imaginations. Stop focusing on the adult prospective and focus on the kids. There are ways to build a challenging playground while at the same time building for inclusion and safety. Let’s brainstorm, create, and get outside and play!