Paint With A Broad Brush

The staggering amount of information about the importance of outdoor play, combined with the alarming rise in childhood obesity, has recently given playgrounds the spotlight as places to keep kids active.

Playgrounds on which children are forced to stand in line and wait for a turn on the swings, slide and merry-go-round are designs of the past. Those areas then evolved into a continuous carousel of play with prescribed entry and exit points, as well as integrated access points for children in wheelchairs.

“It is important to design all-inclusive playgrounds so that kids of different abilities are able to play together,” says Brad Work, representative for Anderson Recreational Design in southern Ohio. “We don’t want to exclude anyone when we design a playground.”

The standard playground design in most locations is aptly referred to as a post-and-deck system that has specific entry points–ladders and climbing walls–to specific exit points, like slides. And while the post-and-deck system has progressed to include children with physical disabilities, what about accommodating children with autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

“We needed to broaden our definition of what inclusive play really means; traditionally, people think of wheelchair access,” says Kris Clark, marketing solutions manager with Landscape Structures, a playground equipment manufacturer. “Autism is on the rise, and children in the autism spectrum really thrive with different sensory experiences.” This means creating a playground that is accessible, and includes components such as optical viewers, puzzles, bongos, games and even xylophones, not traditionally seen on a playground..

Getting Physical Mentally

Newer playground designs combine physical, mental and sensory components in appealing to this broad audience of children. “The continuous-play concept allows kids to be able to keep playing,” says Clark. “Over the last five years or so, we moved more into the physical-fitness benefits for kids.”

Some of these features include climbing arches, walls and meshes to develop upper-body strength, while edgeless slides, bottomless slides, spinning bars and wiggly stepping stones help develop core strength and balance.

“We have fitness clusters that can be built with the playground systems,” says Alissa Jones, marketing coordinator for Miracle Recreation Equipment Company. “The playgrounds incorporate climbers and bars where the kids need to use their upper-body strength and more energy.”

The most recent designs in playgrounds not only address physical, mental, sensory and access components, but add a new challenge: There are no specific entry or exit points.

“New playgrounds have ground-to-ground arches and curves with no prescribed entry or exit points,” says Clark. “The children can go over the top, under, through the middle–it is very open and really challenges kids to think about their next step. Where is my hand going to go next? Where is my foot going to go next?”

Play Naturally

Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods provided evidence that children thrive on activities outdoors. As a result, playground designs are appearing in more natural settings with nature paths, butterfly gardens, bushes and trees.

Through the use of glass-fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC), some playground manufacturers are mimicking the look and feel of trees and rocks by literally using a mold of the real thing. “We recognize it is still manufactured and is not real,” says Clark. “The benefits of man-made play equipment are in the design capabilities, durability and that we can design a safe play environment.” The GFRC “tree house” designed by Landscape Structures includes tree steps, limbs and trunks, as well as a tracing panel with raccoons and squirrels carved into the tree.

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