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Creating an Immersive Playground Experience

By Todd Lehman, Cre8Play

“Queenie” the Canadian Goose was commissioned to replace an iconic 30-year-old goose slide on the Candy Cane playground of Wascana Centre in Regina, Saskatchewan. The modernized and compliant structure (Cre8Play) stands almost 13’ tall and 28’ long, with a wingspan of 22’.
All photo credits: Cre8Play

When I was a kid, we played on an empty lot. We lived on what felt like a frontier at the edge of a suburban development, long since filled in with new settlements. It was a different time; parents gave kids a great deal more freedom than most have today. My friends and I spent hours immersed in building secret forts, catching frogs, climbing trees, playing hide-and-seek and plotting future adventures. Our play embraced the landscape's natural features, without fences or boundaries. The closest ''playground'' was at the nearby school, and it was nothing more than a high wooden platform, dull metal monkey bars, peeling paint, splinters and a steel slide that poured bored kids onto the gritty blacktop below. In short, it couldn't compare to our empty lot.

The concept of an ''immersive experience'' is often used in the context of virtual reality and video gaming. Immersion is a state of consciousness where physical self-awareness is diminished or lost in an engrossing, engaging environment. Symptoms include intense focus, a distorted sense of time, and seemingly effortless action. If that doesn't describe the feeling I had as a kid playing on that empty lot, I don't know what does.


The Enchanted Forest at the El Paso Children’s Hospital in El Paso, Texas, is an immersive, multi-unit play area adjacent to the hospital lobby. A customized LED lighting program shifts the scene from daytime to night, and illuminates the hollow trees, wall murals, streams of water, tree forts and a nature-colored, safety-surfaced floor.

The physical reality of a playground is far from immersive in many ways. But if we are to succeed in re-engaging kids in active outdoor play, our playground designers and builders must be nothing short of visionaries, helping us dream up new possibilities and inspiring kids to engage their imaginations and immerse themselves in play.

Today's playground manufacturers have a wealth of materials to draw from, in a wide variety of colors and textures. This presents the challenge, and the opportunity, to move beyond the ease and comfort of traditional post-and-deck systems superficially dressed up to suggest a theme. Ahoy! It's a pirate ship! Then the kids at the park climb aboard and realize it's the same structure they have at school, just assembled a bit differently, with a skull and crossbones on top. Look! It's a spaceship! Then inside it's only a platform with a little porthole to peek through. Great for parents to take a few snapshots, maybe, before the kids inevitably lose interest.


The play structure and poured rubber safety surface at the Kinderberry Hill Child Development Center in Eden Prairie, Minn., took one week to install. The green and beige slides (left) are UV-resistant rotomolded plastic; the log slide (right) was made with plastic and epoxy coating.


We can do better. Not just for our kids, who crave the chance to escape the ever-tighter boundaries imposed on them. We can do better at making playgrounds a more natural extension of the physical environment. Playgrounds should spring organically from the landscape, not rest on top of it like something alien. We can do better than inert, sterile and generic structures that could exist anywhere. When I was 8 years old, my father, the Parks and Recreation Director in New Hope, Minn., would bring home playground models and ask what I thought. I remember taking them apart and finding different ways to put them back together, reconfiguring them, looking for a better approach. In a sense, I've been designing playgrounds all my life.


Each structure in the play area is linked with glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) rocks and logs, laid out as stepping-stones to encourage balance and coordination.


My dad went on to enjoy a long career with one of the most respected playground companies in the country, and despite my best intentions, I've followed in his footsteps. More than three decades later, I still think about how badly I wanted to make playgrounds more fun then - and what it will take to make them more fun now.
Today's play structure creators should look beyond two-dimensional, uninspiring photos of the playground and consider natural elements like rock fragments, dirt samples, tree bark, even moss. Architects, artists and designers can match each component of the design to the colors and textures of the environment around it.

The setting and characteristics of an elementary school in Michigan will not match those at a humid Florida park, or at a Texas hospital. These unique qualities should be represented and reflected by equally unique play structures. Today we have the technology and the skill to design play structures that fit into their surroundings. Using materials that are both highly durable and malleable, like glass-fiber reinforced concrete, steel and a variety of sculpting epoxies, modern playgrounds can match their settings in a realistic and organic way, allowing kids to fully immerse themselves in play. My fear is that modular, cookie-cutter designs will lead to the playgrounds my friends and I avoided in favor of that vacant lot.


Hiding hollows in the structure supports and in the logs made the Kinderberry Hill play area a top winner in a Twin Cities competition for “design excellence and attention to detail, from railings to rock walls.”


Once kids realize that a playground is just another colorized structure with a superficial theme, they will turn away from active play and toward more virtual, glazed-eyed amusements. Parents trying to raise healthy, active children should be rewarded with play structures that motivate and inspire children to pull their heads from the digital fog.


The structures in the outdoor section of the El Paso Children’s Hospital’s Enchanted Forest were built with steel and GFRC, and the “Magical Tree” is surfaced with “ThemeCoat” epoxy for a more realistic feel.


Playground design has matured enough to shift our focus toward design, rather than engineering. More toward what we can dream and less toward what we already know - and by extension, what we've already done. This mindset made Walt Disney a revolutionary. He created worlds kids could immerse themselves in, worlds with so much detail and wide-eyed wonder that they still mesmerize children almost a century later. This type of thinking makes the world's greatest museums places in which we lose our sense of time, like the Exploratorium in San Francisco or the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. We never forget our childhood experiences in these immersive environments.


The “Hobbit Home,” climbing logs and mushroom steps on the outer edge of the Enchanted Forest area were also built with GFRC, steel and epoxy coating. Sustainable composite decking within the structure and walking bridge complement the safety surfacing.


I'll close with an analogy. In the early 1980s, few people had heard of Apple Computer. Few imagined they'd ever be used on a regular basis. Certainly no one thought computers could be objects of high design. In a now-iconic television ad, Apple said they would show the world why ''1984 would not be like 1984,'' evoking the dystopian future of Orwell's classic novel. Almost 30 years later, we know the rest of the story. Apple went on to revolutionize the way we think about and use computers, and not by creating products that functioned well from an engineer's perspective. Apple products are designed to bring users into an immersive experience.


“The El Paso Children’s Hospital’s theme is “For Excellence” and The Enchanted Forest play environment fits right in,” said Dennece Knight, Executive Director of the University Medical Center Foundation. “It actually exceeded what we had hoped to achieve.”


Now, playground design may not change the world the way computers have, but it can certainly have a profound impact on the lives of our children -- and by extension, the world they will create. And with childhood obesity and attention deficit disorders reaching epidemic proportions, we must find new ways to inspire our kids toward more active play, to encourage them toward an active and healthy lifestyle. We have the technology. We just need the creativity to put it to better use.


The “Kidsville” play structure features a 20-foot tree house and 44 activities including a large play web, talk tubes, telescopes and a sound system with buttons to activate squirrel and bird sounds. The bridge is also built to creak when kids cross. Solar cells on the roofs of the structure power the sound system.



The indoor and outdoor portions of the Enchanted Forest took four weeks to install. The inside sections were built next to a shared hospital lobby, mandating short deadlines. Photo updates were sent weekly to the client to keep them informed.



About the Author
Todd Lehman, Owner and Executive Creative Director of Cre8Play, is a second-generation playground designer who takes fun very seriously. For more information, visit


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November 18, 2019, 10:40 am PDT

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