In New Mexico's North Las Cruces Park, a bigger-than-life scorpion suns itself on an outcropping at the edge of the new playground equipment, offering kids the opportunity to climb on an arachnid they're normally careful to avoid. "We wanted something with interest," said Mark Johnston, director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Las Cruces. "Something that blended with the desert, and yet stood out in the desert." That connection with the surrounding landscape and flavor of the community is becoming more popular, and it's one of Johnston's hallmarks. "I tend to do things that really fit the area…and I think this nailed it." Dismissing what he called "cookie cutter-type playgrounds," Johnston instead opted for a concept that grabbed kids' interest. "When our children go to a park, I want them really to say, 'Wow.'" His team also erected an adobe-style fort wall that sits between the scorpion and the rest of the playground structures, creating an appealing visual effect that makes the park feel simultaneously more spacious and interactive.
Ample space between the different structures at John Marty Park in Beaverton, Ore., gives kids a chance to enjoy freeform activities without leaving the playground. That desire for innovation and creativity may be closer to t
he surface in kids than it is for adults, said Doug Menke, general manager of the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District (THPRD). "Parents seem to gravitate toward the conventional, standard play equipment, while the kids are very excited about the updated, more modern elements."
Menke said that conventional designs—such as the classic post-and-platform structures— are often being reinvented to provide children with more opportunities for creative play. Much of the traditionally styled equipment "allows for one, specified use," Menke said, a notion that may not satisfy kids' yearning to invent their own games and play activities. "What we are seeing now are independent, unconventional pieces linked together to create limitless uses."
Kid-driven creativity is invading playgrounds across the country, and Winston Lindsay IV, project chair for the Ponca City Noon Ambucs, said the trend was an important factor when designing the new structures for the Doug Nickles Memorial Playground in Ponca City, Oklahoma's Ambuc Park. "People want to see and experience something different," Lindsay explained. "For our project, we wanted to make it suited for varying abilities and to be more inclusive."
The park boasts a wide range of features, and from the popular side-by-side slides to the meandering boardwalk that links the different play areas together, there's something in it for everyone.
"I think there's a trend to break apart the massive composite play structures into pockets of play," said Thomas Norquist, secretary of the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and senior vice president of marketing, design and innovation for a playground equipment manufacturer in Fort Payne, Ala. "Some of that is being placed along trails, and sometimes it's placed within large regional parks." He said he increasingly sees installations that offer multiple "moderately scaled opportunities for play" rather than a single massive playground.
Jim Sindelar, Ponca City's park and recreation director, partnered with Lindsay on the Doug Nickles playground design and installation. He said that bringing kids of varying ages and abilities together throughout the various play areas was a priority. "The idea that kids could socialize by using the playground together is one thing we really looked at," Sindelar said. "Everything is connected, and people can go through the entire playground and be playing together." Providing a range of stimulation devices was key. The park's new equipment incorporates hand-eye coordination activities as well as educational features to grab the children's attention and prompt them to use their minds.
Like the desert-inspired color palette used in Las Cruces, part of the energy at Doug Nickles stems from the playground's tie to the landscape. The design team wanted the equipment to flow with the surrounding environment, leading to the extensive use of earth tones. Other details were incorporated to enhance the natural effect, including platform bases that resemble tree trunks and side panels made of faux wood, all handsomely offset by structural posts in deep red. Elements such as "the use of stones and trees in the playground equipment" was a recurring theme among the structures Lindsay considered, and it even influenced them to lay down a turf surface. "Our park is next to a lake," Lindsay said, "so we thought the grass would give it more of a natural setting."
The shift away from oversaturated colors has left the door open for "softer, more environmental color schemes," Norquist said. He estimated that a decade ago, at least half of everything leaving the factories was a primary color, but that's no longer the case. "You'll notice quite a few manufacturers have come out with different greens, blues, reds and purples that all kind of get away from the traditional primary color schemes and even move beyond the natural color schemes to make them more vibrant, but in a playful way."
At home in their surroundings, the playground structures at John Marty Park reflect the abundance of deep greens and browns found in the Pacific Northwest. "Within the last few years, we have seen parents and kids gravitating toward earth tone color selections—beige, greens, browns, etc.," Menke said. Standout primary colors can still add some spice to the visual landscape, though, as brilliant blue accents help to keep the otherwise earthy colors at John Marty Park cheerful during long stretches of gray days. At another park within the THPRD system, the sense of place was enhanced through the use of beige and blue surfacing that represented land and water. "Stepping stone patterns were added into the blue surface," Menke said, a touch that has delighted playground users. "Kids hop across them to get to the play equipment."
Today's playground equipment comes in a variety of materials, and the best choice may depend on location as well as purpose. In the warm climate of the Southwest, Johnston said that stainless steel often becomes too hot for playground users. "When it gets to be 100 degrees, you want to make sure that your play equipment is not absorbing so much heat that you can't play on it," Johnston cautioned. Plastics and gunnite have become popular in areas where heat is an issue, and wood continues to be widely used in all but the most arid environments, where it has a tendency to dry out.
To dissipate heat, the playground at Ambuc Park utilizes new plastics in many areas, but there are still situations where stainless steel continues to be the material of choice. Because the design of the Doug Nickles playground is targeted at providing an inclusive play experience for all kids, it was important that children with special needs, such as those with cochlear implants, be able to enjoy all of the playground's features. "The plastic-type slides build up static," Sindlar said, describing a situation that has been known to zap the external components of the expensive devices, "so we decided to install a stainless steel slide for those kids."
Menke has seen an increase in the projects using molded plastics, "most likely as a result of the many variations that the playground manufacturers can create with this type of material," he said. It's a product that also readily lends itself to innovative features. "Touch/feel has been popular with the 2-12 age group, and some roto-molded plastics have been created to look like bugs, animals and tree logs," Menke said. With many playgrounds incorporating additional sense-stimulating features, plastics are often a popular choice. Manufacturers also use precast concrete to create exciting elements that can be designed and sculpted into fantastic, imaginative playscapes.
For projects where sustainability is a priority, environmentally-friendly playground materials are readily available. "I think you're seeing more recycled materials come in as the emphasis on green gets stronger and stronger," said Lloyd W. Reese, immediate past president of IPEMA and senior manager of research and development for a playground equipment manufacturer in Farmington, Mo. "You're seeing more playground designs that can contribute to LEED points for schools, so I think the carbon footprint and recycled content actually comes into play for a lot of people."
Once the structures have been selected, the next step is to provide playground users with the right kind of shade in the right places. Shade not only keeps people and equipment from getting too hot, it also shields kids from harmful UV rays. "We do more and more playgrounds every day with some kind of shade," Reese said, "be it natural or manmade." He estimated that in certain areas of the country, nearly 90 percent of new playgrounds incorporate some type of shade, and said, "I think the trend in the industry is how to incorporate those shades in a very fun manner."
With careful placement and good design, shades can have a tremendous impact on the temperature of any playground structure. "You have a phenomenon of lowering the temperature in the shade in the summer months by as much as 20 degrees on the play equipment," Norquist said.
Customers report they're pleased that their kids can play on the equipment year-round, which Norquist said is a compelling usability function. "The different shade designs, from simple rectilinear to highly architectonic sail-type designs, with multiple different colored and shaped panels, are quite beautiful," he said.
What's below the play structure is just as important as what's above it, and surfacing continues to be an important safety feature of any playground. "When you think about the purpose of surfacing, primarily it's to attenuate a fall from equipment to the ground to make it safe to play in that play area," Norquist said. As surfacing materials have advanced, playgrounds have been able to expand upward, with some structures reaching nearly 16 feet tall. Fortunately, the looks of surfacing materials have improved along with their performance. "What we're seeing today is the use of beautiful, colorful mosaics and designs, and oftentimes the mixture of sound and sensors into that surfacing to make the surfacing as playful as the equipment that it's protecting."
Today, the type of material used for surfacing is scrutinized not only for its safety functionality, but also for its cost efficiency and contribution to accessibility, according to Menke. "The trend is to use and recycle materials, and at the same time reduce maintenance costs in maintaining engineered wood fiber, sand and pea gravel surfacing materials, while also meeting federal ADA requirements for fully accessible playgrounds," he said. Depending on the climate, landscape and other factors, artificial turf and rubber mulch are also popular choices for new installations.