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Play Structure Choices: From Big to Small, All Promote Fun

By Gregory V. Harris, regional editor

ABOVE: A play structure designed for younger children is located adjacent to the larger play structure at the 25,000 square foot playground at High Point School in Ann Arbor, Mich. Wheelchair access to the larger play structure (BELOW) is available via the paved areas throughout the entire complex. This play structure also features a stainless steel mirror that makes images different than they would normally appear. Photos Courtesy GameTime

Exercise. Fresh air. Outdoor activity. These words describe various aspects of elementary school playgrounds, but when school-age children lay their eyes on the giant slide glistening in the warm sun, climbing walls and ladders tempting them to reach for the sky, and ramps and tubes that allow them to explore and use their imagination, only one word comes to mind. Fun!

Play structures come in a plethora of shapes and sizes, and there are many companies that manufacture play structures. The choice of which play structures are best for a school or community can be a daunting task, but in many cases, school officials, neighborhood committees and parents have come together to research the products available to determine what is best for their children and their community.

The following playgrounds, designed primarily for elementary-age children, are located across the United States.

These playgrounds are located in urban and suburban areas, they feature small and large play structures, and the cost to build these playgrounds varied as much as their design and location. One common denominator, however: the children love their playgrounds.

High Point School --Ann Arbor, Mich.

Located in Ann Arbor, Mich., High Point School is part of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD). There are five year-round programs housed in the High Point Building, serving students from infants through age 25, a portion of who have multiple disabilities. Answering the needs of the students, High Point officials determined that the campus should feature a Boundless Playground.

Jan Culbertson, an architect with Ann Arbor-based A3C Collaborative Architecture, said the High Point playground is designed to suit all ages and children of all abilities.

"This playground is designed for continual play," Culbertson said.

Culbertson said the High Point playground is comprised of four different play areas, named "Alpha," "Beta," Gamma," and "Delta." Each area is defined by its own color of safety surfacing. The color-coded safety surfacing is based on the rated fall zone for that portion of the playground.

"This playground goes beyond ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines," Culbertson said. "As a Boundless Playground, this playground is designed to allow the children to play with each other, rather than be separated because of their abilities."

According to High Point officials, High Point School was established by WISD in 1975 to meet the personalized learning needs of students from birth through age 25 with developmental disabilities. In the early 1980s, WISD adopted a philosophy of inclusion and began working with local schools to support children, if possible, in attending their local schools. The students who attend the WISD program at High Point are severely cognitively impaired, severely developmentally impaired, and/or medically fragile.

The 25,000 square foot playground features GameTime play structures. The larger play structure is blue and purple and has ramps that can be accessed by wheelchairs. A smaller play structure, GameTime's "Park Place" product, is located adjacent to the larger structure. The "Park Place" structure is designed for younger children and features a slide, several landings and a mirror that makes images funnier than they would normally appear. Culbertson said a school design committee interviewed a number of play structure manufacturers before selecting GameTime.

This sprawling play structure at Ann Arbor, Michigan's High Point School is a custom unit designed for the school's Boundless Playground. Paved pathways wind around the play structure and the poured safety surfacing allow for wheelchair accessibility, letting children of all abilities play together, rather than separately. The safety surfacing (note the blue and green areas) is color-coded to differentiate play areas based on the rated fall zone for that section of the playground. This is required due to the differing abilities of the students. The safety surfacing in these areas is poured in place Sureplay International Rubber Surfacing. Masons Sand is used in areas that did not require accessibility. Photos Courtesy GameTime

In order to complete the playground, the school district received a $100,000 challenge grant through the Able To Play Project as seed money to build the Boundless Playground and $56,000 in technical assistance from the National Center for Boundless Playgrounds. In addition, $350,000 was raised through monetary donations, grants and in-kind donations. The playground was completed in June 2005, and Culbertson said the playground design included room to add more play structure equipment in subsequent years. In fact, an ongoing project to add more structures to the playground is expected to be completed by the one-year anniversary of the playgrounds' opening.

Gustafson Early Childhood Center -Muskegon, Mich.

Another Michigan elementary school, the Gustafson Early Childhood Center in Muskegon, also utilizes GameTime play equipment at its playground. Gustafson's students range from pre-kindergarten to second grade.

Gustafson school officials wanted a play structure that offered many opportunities for sliding, climbing and crawling. This structure at the Muskegon, Michigan-based school is the playground's main structure and has three slides, ladders and tubes for crawling. In addition, the playground has a climbing wall. A smaller play structure (not shown in photo) for younger children is located adjacent to the main structure. A shredded hard bark safety surface has been utilized for the larger play structure, while a rubberized safety surface is used under the smaller play structure.

"I have worked with GameTime for a number of years and they have good products," Kerri Manley, a landscape architect with Grand Rapids-based Beta Design, said. "We needed to install equipment that was challenging enough for second grade students that was also accessible for pre-K students."

Manley said it was important to provide sliding, climbing and crawling areas for the playground, adding that the old school playground had play equipment placed in a straight line.

"The new playground is enclosed in an 80-foot diameter circle," Manley said, adding that a smaller play area geared toward the younger children is located adjacent to the main structure.

The main play structure is blue and green, which accentuates the tree-lined area around the school. The structure has several tubes and slides and a variety of ladders for climbing. There is also a large open space around the play structure to allow for running, jumping and frolicking. The play area for younger children features several "saddle mates," small yet wide stairs and cylindrical objects to play games such as tic-tac-toe.

A pathway winds through the playground, making the complex ADA compliant. The larger play area for the older students features shredded hard bark safety surfacing, while the play area for the younger students has a rubberized safety surfacing.

Two stainless steel slides strike an imposing pose at the Martin Luther King School playground in Cambridge, Mass. This play structure is designed to take advantage of a hill that sits on school property. The hill has a slope of about eight feet, and locating the play structure on top of the hill provides students with a nice view as well as many climbing opportunities. Photo Courtesy Goric

"This area feels fun to walk on and is better for crawling," Manley said.

Manley said she worked hand in hand with a school committee when she designed the site. The planners visualized where the equipment would be placed, with an emphasis being placed on imaginative play.

"The play areas are designed as an educational experience," Manley said. "These students are able to be outdoors, have fun and improve their development skills."

Martin Luther King Jr. School -Cambridge, Mass.

Unlike High Point School and Gustafson Early Childhood Center, which are located in primarily suburban areas with plenty of land around the schools, Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge, Mass. is located in an urban area with minimal room to expand.

The playground at Martin Luther King Jr. School (known as King Playground) is classified by the city of Cambridge in two categories: as a neighborhood "tot lot," designed to serve children under the age of 12, and as a school playground.

This view from the back of the play structure shows the slope of a portion of the hill. The various cargo nets and bridges are a natural extension of this play structure that sits on top of an eight-foot hill. The color palette selected for this structure also fits in well with the Cambridge, Mass. neighborhood where the school is located. Photo Courtesy Goric

"There is a need at this playground to accommodate many kids simultaneously as a result of being a neighborhood park and a school site," said Rob Steck, a project planner with the Cambridge Department of Community Development.

One of the challenges Steck faced when planning the design for upgrading the playground for the older children was the school's desire to keep a hill on school property in tact.

"Most playgrounds are installed on relatively flat surfaces," Steck said. "The challenge here was to design something to hug the hill."

Steck said the top of the hill is about eight feet higher than the flat area around the school. The slope of the hill is not too severe, allowing for a unique design for the play structure.

"Locating the play structure on the top of the hill provides quite a nice view for the children," Steck said.

The King Playground, consists of Goric's Berliner custom structure with Terranos free flowing netscapes, two long stainless steel slides, and features known as "Spaceball M," "The Blue," and two "Fireballs." The installation of this playground occurred in 2000. The structure has a combination of Quadropolis towers situated at the highest point of the play area and a variety of nets and bridges that allow children to climb up the hill.

The addition and volume of the climbing cable nets and bridges serve to enhance the hill as a playing opportunity and serves as one of the focal points of the playground.

"This playground is very different from what the people had before," Steck said. "It is a very popular playground in the community."

A play structure with a ramping system was essential for the Henry North Elementary School in Lansing, Mich., as the school is home to many wheelchair-bound students. In addition to the various ramps, this Boundless Playground has three zones of delineation, with safety surfaces of the zones consisting of engineered wood fiber chips and poured-in-place surfacing. Photo Courtesy GameTime

Henry North Elementary School -Lansing, Mich.

As a new magnet school for children with disabilities in the Lansing, Mich. area, Henry North Elementary School had a problem. The schools playground was designed for able-bodied children, with play structures that were inaccessible to those with disabilities and safety surfacing consisting of wood chips and soft sand, materials that are not wheelchair friendly.

This situation changed for the better in 2002, thanks to the efforts of Rena Baxter, an occupational therapist at the school.

"Rena Baxter championed this project, along with the students' parents," said Bob Ford, a landscape architect with the Lansing-based firm Landscape Architects and Planners. "We did the site work for this project."

In the early stages of the playground project, fundraising was essential. Baxter wrote a grant request to a regional agency that garnered $20,000 for the project. Additional money for the project was generated by donations from the community, and in 2003, the project received a major boost with a $75,000 Able to Play matching grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Ultimately, more than $125,000 was raised for the project.

Ford said the playground design committee had basic principals for the playground, including a design that would allow for the installation of a ramping system throughout the park.

"It was important to have a playground that allowed all of the kids to enjoy and for all kids to be able to get on the play structure," Ford said.

Ford said a number of the pieces on the play structure, manufactured by GameTime, were designed primarily as a result of parent involvement. These pieces include a music area at the playground that has items such as chimes and drums.

The playground consists modular forms that serve as the nucleus of the structure. There are three zones in the playground, "Alpha," "Beta," and "Gamma," with the walk textures and colors differing to delineate the zones. Ford noted the safety surfaces of the zones are engineered wood fiber chips and poured-in-place surfacing.

"The texture is placed to warn the children that they are entering or exiting a particular zone," Ford said.

The play structure in the Alpha zone, a modular structure, is designed for children ages 2-5 and measures 975 square feet. The Gamma zone play structure is a modular structure designed for children ages 5-12 and measures 3,330 square feet. The Beta zone, which houses the music area, measures 450 square feet. The size of the playground including asphalt play surface and lawn areas is 38,986 square feet.

Pleasant Lake Elementary School -West Bloomfield, Mich.

Unlike the North Elementary School, Pleasant Lake Elementary School does not have a Boundless Playground, but similar to North Elementary, school parents played an integral role in designing the school's playground.

Bob Ford of the firm Landscape Architects and Planners said a district-wide program enabled several schools to design their own playgrounds and select the equipment for their playgrounds.

"The kids could pick out the play structures, so each playground takes on a different personality," Ford said.

For this project completed in 2001, the Pleasant Lake Elementary students chose red, white and blue play structures manufactured by GameTime for their kindergarten and upper elementary playgrounds. The kindergarten play structure is a modular structure with several freestanding components. It measures 2,240 square feet. The upper elementary playground features two modular structures, several swing sets, tire swings and free standing components taking up an area over 19,000 square feet.

"This is one or the more dramatics playgrounds that came from this project," Ford said. "The students and school committee wanted a play structure that had a lot of height, which gives the kids outstanding bird's eye views."

The safety surfacing is similar for both the kindergarten and upper elementary playgrounds. The majority of the safety surfacing is engineered wood fiber and each playground has a poured-in-place rubber path from the entrance of the play area to the transfer point of the modular structures.

Ford noted that the Pleasant Lake Elementary playgrounds were one of the first in the district to include climbing walls in the playground design.

"The students here wanted play opportunities that promoted climbing as opposed to balance," he said.

ord said the elementary students and parents have been extremely happy with their playground, adding that upgrades and additions have been commissioned each year since it opened.

"The play value of this playground is determined by their uniqueness and diversity, not necessarily by the cost of the playground," Ford said. "It's based more on its intrinsic value."

Covering an area of over 19,000 square feet, this play area on the campus of Pleasant lake Elementary School in West Bloomfield, Mich. consists of two modular structures, several swing sets, tire swings and a climbing wall. This playground is the first in the district to feature a climbing wall as part of the design. The majority of the safety surfacing here is engineered wood fiber. There is a poured-in-place rubber path from the entrance of the play area to the transfer point of the play structures. Photo Courtesy GameTime

Wallace Elementary School -Hoboken, N.J.

Clifford Munz had a unique challenge to overcome when designing the playground at Wallace Elementary School in Hoboken, N.J. The playground sits wall to wall in a depressed area of school property.

"The sidewalks around the school are elevated above the playground, so we had to install a new sewer system in addition to updating the surface areas and play structures," Munz said.

Munz, who at the time of this 2005 project was a senior project manager and design architect with URS Corporation, is now a senior project manager with RSC Architects of Cliffside Park, N.J.

The Playground sits about four feet below the sidewalks. Munz incorporated new grading and drainage that is connected to drywells, which then flows to the street. In addition, drainage is aided by the poured surface that was incorporated over the entire playground.

This playground project called for complete demolition of the old playground, including the equipment, asphalt surfaces, a basketball court and a swimming pool installed on the property by the city for neighborhood use during the summer months.

"The desire for the new playground was to have a bit of an oasis visible from all points," Munz said. "ADA access was also a concern, as the old playground was not accessible to those with disabilities."

A ramp was incorporated into the design to allow for accessibility, and the poured in place surfacing allows for wheelchair access to the playground. The oasis feel to the play area was achieved by cutting out and coloring a circular portion of the poured surface an orange color to mimic sand and a swath in blue to represent water.

"We also have several trees that serve as small islands on either side of the 'stream,' and trees located adjacent to the play structures," Munz said. "These are maple trees that should get to about 20 feet tall when mature and provide shady areas at the playground."

Munz, who said he received advice on this project from his wife -a landscape architect who has a firm in Mount Kisco, N.Y. -, chose Playworld play structures for this project.

"Playworld always has produced a quality play structure, and after chatting with my wife about play structures, this seemed to be the best choice for this project," Munz said.

The playground has two play structures, for the school's younger and older children respectively. Both structures are colorful, with an orange and purple color palette. An area of green is used to outline the circular oasis of the play area.

"This playground has nice visibility in the neighborhood and the playground gives the area a nice splash of color," Munz said.

From overhead, the circular oasis appears off-center, a design feature that was planned, Munz said. Entry to the playground is directly across from the school cafeteria, and a six-foot high fence surrounds the play area. Added to the four-foot elevation surrounding the school, the fencing reaches 10 feet high from the floor of the play area, a safety feature welcomed by school officials and parents.

The playground, which was doubled in size as a result of the remodel, also features a basketball court next to the play area. A 12-foot high fence separates the two areas, and the gate to the basketball court can be closed off from the play area. As a result, basketball court users can access the court without having access to the play area.

"The school kids and teachers saw this playground coming together during construction, and you could see how excited they were as the project went on," Munz said.

These orange and purple play structures were selected to add a splash of color to this urban area of Hoboken, N.J. The Wallace Elementary School's safety surfacing at the play area is poured-in-place. The circular orange area was cut out from the green area and poured-in-play safety surfacing was installed, adding to the "oasis" feel of the playground. A similar technique was used on the blue "stream" that sits at the middle of the play area. When mature, these maple trees will reach 20 feet in height and offer an abundance of shade to the play area. Photo Courtesy Clifford Munz & Playworld

Ottawa Montessori School -Grand Rapids, Mich.

The Ottawa Montessori School in Grand Rapids is home to approximately 430 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. When the time came for a remodel of the school's upper elementary and lower elementary playgrounds, school district officials contacted M.C. Smith Associates and Architectural Group to design and construct the project.

The lower elementary playground is located next to a residential area of Grand Rapids that has a number of large deciduous trees. These trees served, in part, as the inspiration for the color selection of the playground's new play structure.

The play structure, manufactured by Miracle Recreation Equipment Company, has a three-tiered design with green roof panels and red posts. Tan railings, two blue slides and a climbing wall are also features of the play structure.

"Spatially, the Miracle structure fit, and we liked the roofs, which resemble tree houses," Michael C. Smith, president of M.C. Smith Associates, said.

One unique design aspect of the lower elementary playground is the inclusion of a stage that sits near the sidewalk, at the corner of the play structure.

"School officials insisted that a stage needed to be included in the play area," Smith said, noting that the elementary students often perform play and other activities on the stage.

The stage also serves as an accessibility point to the play structure for students with disabilities. A ramp behind the stage leads to the stage and to a ramp on the play structure.

The playground, at about 150 square feet and with no room for expansion, is small, but it provides unlimited fun for the elementary school children. The stage has paved seating areas for students watching activities on the stage, and three benches that provide additional seating. In addition, the location of the play structure provides for more viewing areas as students can stand on the play structure and watch events on the stage.

Smith said shredded fiber is used for the playground safety surfacing, which is an accessible surface. In addition, poured-in-place wear zones have been implemented under the swings, tire swing and at the landing pint under the slides.

"These wear zones dramatically reduce the cost of maintenance on playgrounds," Smith said.

Smith said one popular feature of the play structure is the inclusion of a climbing wall.

This play structure by was selected for the campus at Ottawa Montessori School in Grand Rapids, Mich. because it resembles a tree house and fits well with surrounding neighborhood and the abundance of deciduous trees in the area. The ramp allows for wheelchair accessibility to the play structure and a small stage. The climbing wall on the structure is very popular with the elementary school students. The safety surfacing here is shredded wood fiber. Photo Courtesy Miracle Recreation Equipment Co.

"Climbing walls are an increasing trend on public playgrounds and are a popular item," he said. "They are new and unique, and the kids at Ottawa Montessori seem to gravitate toward the climbing wall."

Smith noted that the design had to take into account Michigan's weather, particularly with the fall leaves and the snowy winters.

"Snow and leaves on the play structure are part of the environment," he said. "The play structure is resistant to rusting, so it should have a lot of life in it. As for the leaves, the maintenance crews just have to do a light raking from the safety surfacing to the paved areas, then they are blown away (with a leaf blower)."

The Ottawa Montessori playground project was completed in the fall of 2005 and has received rave reviews from students, teachers and school district officials, particularly for the stage, which is a very popular addition.

The stage at the Ottawa Montessori School playground was an important feature requested by school officials. The school students regularly perform shows at this outdoor stage, which is wheelchair accessible. Banners or curtains can be hung on the fence behind the stage, adding a visual element to the productions. Students can sit on the paved area in front of the stage and stand on the play structure to watch performances. Photo Courtesy M.C. Smith Associates & Miracle Recreation Equipment Co.

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December 8, 2019, 7:51 am PDT

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