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Play is the Work of Children

By Leslie McGuire, managing editor

This modular play unit in the Oak Brook Park District in Chicago was custom designed by Robert Collins, RLA to imitate a ship smashed on a rocky shore. It was specifically created to be approved for use by ages two through five. The ship's bow, propeller, steering and observation decks are all an invitation for imaginative play. Photo courtesy of Robert Collins, RLA, Recreation Concepts, Inc.

There is an increased recognition across a broad spectrum of educators, medical professionals, designers, manufacturers, government institutions social psychologists and national associations that, in fact, play is an extremely important part of child development. As a result, more and more communities are rethinking the ways in which they can improve their communities and the families that live in them by building playgrounds--lots of them.

New York has over 2,000 playgrounds and is focused on designing new ones with more natural areas. Part of that includes planning for more water infiltration into the planting beds so the runoff can be pulled away from draining directly to the street. Photo courtesy of Danny Avila/New York City Parks & Recreation

As more and more money is being allocated for playgrounds, landscape architects, designers and manufacturers are beginning to see just how many different aspects there are to consider when designing a playground. There are site concerns, safety regulations, access issues and usage patterns just for starters. Associations such as National Playground Safety Institute (NPSI), the National Recreation and Parks Association, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the American Society for Testing and Materials Standards (ASTM)--all of whom have concerns about playground design.

Pre-school children need a place where they can learn basic play skills on equipment that's not quite as challenging. The Marion Hopkinson Playground features lower structures--not built up as high as those meant for school age children. The reality is that, based on ability, once they've mastered the needed skills they migrate into the next area. Photo courtesy of Danny Avila/New York City Parks & Recreation

But even more interesting, there is a strong movement toward including as much nature as possible in a play area. As Teri Hendy a consultant for the National Playground Saftey Institute says, "Up until recently, the best children seemed to get was grass. But consider how much can be learned from tall grass, or a rotting log, or a shallow pond." Play, after all, is the work of children. It's how they learn about their world, manage social interactions, handle conflict resolution and develop all manner of physical skills. Being a couch potato just doesn't cut it in the real world.

Accessible routes from sidewalk directly to the play structures at the Bachman Playground make it possible for children of all abilities to navigate directly. That may include an existing pathway to the play area or even another facility. However, if these access paths are inadequate, greater attention needs to be paid so everyone can gain easy access not only to play areas and structures, but to restrooms as well.

Among those who have the most to deal with when it comes to playgrounds are the Park and Recreation superintendents and commissioners who deal with the consequences of playground design on a daily basis.

Bloomingdale Playground is now fully accessible. It's one of the new generation of playgrounds for all children--not just for children with disabilities. This one also includes a spray pad as well as a "rocker swing" which can hold two wheelchairs. The children who aren't in wheelchairs are intrigued with the rocker swing as well. Photo courtesy of Malcolm Pinckney/New York City Parks & Recreation

Big City Parks are Just Big Backyards

Adrian Benepe, New York City's Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, oversees the operation of more than 28,000 acres and nearly 4,000 properties including almost 2,000 playgrounds, 600 ball fields, 550 tennis courts, 53 swimming pools, 35 recreation centers, 14 miles of beach, four major stadiums, and 2.5 million street and park trees. That's a lot of people and a lot of children. Of course, he is the first to point out that there's a different set of concerns for large city parks as opposed to suburban parks. A while back, Benepe paid a visit to a playground in Bakersfield, Calif., a suburban playground, which was completely different from what he deals with in New York City.

One way of including nature is to create play areas with shallow ponds where the plants grow in a three-foot pebble base. The Children's Arboretum in Chicago provides just such as play area. The plants have plenty of water, but where children walk, the water is no more than three inches deep. Photo courtesy of EDAW Fort Collins

The major difference, of course, is that the parks are what New York City residents call their backyard. They are not just used on weekends--the open space and the playgrounds are in daily use from dawn until dark--even after dark. It's where they go to get in touch with nature. As a result, the parks department has hundreds of playgrounds to design and manage. There are 2000 playgrounds in New York that are open to the public. "We are now a major consumer of playground equipment and design," says Adrian Benepe.

The New York City Parks Department is having a lot of fun these days. They have their own design and engineering division, have added about a 1000 employees and have a lot to spend on building and rebuilding over the next three years. Photo courtesy of Danny Avila/New York City Parks & Recreation

"We are in the middle of the largest building boom in New York City, going back to the 1930s when the Works Progress Administration--later the Works Projects Administration (WPA)--provided funding for expansion across the city.

Why? The economy is very healthy, the population is growing rapidly--we expect to have 9 million people in the five boroughs (up from 8 million a few years ago). We've actually gained more people in New York City than many cities even have," says Benepe, "and we're not gaining any land. We have to be very creative with our usage. That requires managing the maximum numbers of users and children while still adhering to the ASTM guidelines allowing for safety."

An example of neighborhood themed park design is Madison Square Park which is located in the toy district in New York, and was the site of the first Barnum and Bailey Circus. Entering the playground, one is greeted by toy soldiers standing at attention on either side of the gate. Images of toy circus animals, boats, soldiers and horses animate the steel play units. Custom Mansard roofs on the play equipment echo the surrounding architecture and crown high platforms that can be transformed into imaginary castles. Photo courtesy of New York City Parks & Recreation

The Playground Should Fit the Neighborhood

As far as New York City is concerned, this is the golden age for playground construction. Many of them have themes. They try to offer some aspect in the design that's unique to the park or the neighborhood. It might relate to the history of the area. For example, there's a park named for a railroad magnate and the play equipment took on a railroad theme. In another park, it might have to do with ethnicity. In China Town the color scheme is red and gold, which is considered fortuitous in that culture.

And things change, too. Henry Stern, the former Parks Commissioner, wanted sculpted animals in the playgrounds such buffalo, dinosaurs, hippos or ducks. Some of the playgrounds take their names from the prevailing animal sculpture. The Riverside Park play area at 91st street is called Hippo Playground and another is called Dinosaur Playground.

Manipulative play with water, or natural areas to manipulate sand and water, bring a lot to a play area.--Teri Hendy, Site Masters, Inc.

There is also a move to create innovative playground designs using the site itself as a piece of the play equipment. "A Noguchi style playground is being built in Queens. The design of Rainey Playground was inspired by the work of sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose Garden Museum is located immediately adjacent to the park. We've planned for two mounds covered in colorful safety surfacing that children can run up and slide down on embedded metal slides, one of which is ADA accessible. We are providing a series of spinners and a low undulating climbing wall in a large safety surface-covered plaza. There will also be a spray shower, swings and lots of places to sit and watch children play." (See LASNs article, "Isamu Noguchi's Playground Designs" September 2004, for more information on Noguchi's playground designs).

They've also been very careful with the "adventure playgrounds" from the 1970s and their retrofitting. The original designers were consulted and they've tried to maintain as much as possible from their original design premises while still adhering to the updated standards of the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the ADA.

Designers should take into consideration the angle of sun when placing a playground and its play structures. In places where it gets cold, angling the site for warmth is good--in places where it gets hot, keeping the seating and play structures shady is important. Sometimes children can be burned by hot metal, so shade structures make sure they don't get too hot. Photo courtesy of Landscape Structures

The Greening of the Play Space

Another important consideration when designing and retrofitting playgrounds is the environmental theme. "How can we make the playgrounds greener, in all senses?" Benepe asks. "We now add planting beds, planting materials, perennial shrubs and habitats. We're building in grey water re-circulating systems that recycle water. And if there's a building in the playground, we stick to green principles. A LEED certified community center in Brooklyn has a geothermal system, a green roof and is built of environmentally friendly materials.

As much as possible they want to meet and exceed ADA standards and make spaces where children of all ages and abilities can play together, which has been a very large priority. There is as much physical play value built in as possible. Noting the trend toward obesity and sedentary life styles, which particularly impact minority inner city dwellers, they've been building more playgrounds and have become the national leader in installation of synthetic turf playing fields to replace asphalt playing fields. They take the classic NYC asphalt school playground and cover with synthetic turf.

What about the controversy? "The controversy comes about if your replace grass with synthetic turf, but we're replacing a hard packed dustbowl filled with glass. If you're going to allow people to have a limited use of the playing field and not close it down for half the year, synthetic turf is the answer," says Benepe. "In a lightly populated area with less intensive use of sports, with a playground used only on the weekend, then you put in grass. We restore the grass in some places, but at the same time we're trying to maintain a balance of trade. Outside the field, we replace asphalt with grass. That way we end up with a net decrease in asphalt.

"We have a mayor who really cares about the parks," says Benepe. "The parks are now in better shape than in the last 40 years. One of the things is that lots of people are living in the city and even more are moving to the city. Our job is to make this a very livable place."

It's important to understand that we've got pre-school users and school age users all in the same playgrounds. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has for years recommended that, based on play patterns, the areas be separated. But the first steps preschoolers take on the younger age equipment are very important in helping them develop cognitive and social skills that are appropriate for them.

Suburban Playgrounds Add Welcome Amenities

Todd Cochran, Assistant Superintendent of the Bergen County Department of Parks, a certified grounds manager as well as a certified playground safety inspector and the past president of the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS), has other concerns. His recreation department deals with suburban issues. As a former recreation committee member for the town of Mahwah, N.J. where he lives, a playground area is an amenity that is greatly appreciated. As a parent of high school through elementary school age children, there are certain designs that he would like to see implemented. "One child plays soccer, and it would be nice to have a playground area near the sports field," says Cochran. "That way the parents can see the game while still being able to monitor the younger child in the playground."

Shade is also very important. It's necessary to provide cover for older people, caretakers and younger children. It's possible to mitigate some heat issues with color choices. Some colors absorb more heat than others. It's also important to take into consideration where the structure is placed visually--in the case of a natural or semi natural site, you want the color palette to be earth tones so it blends in--no primary colors there. He's seen play areas in school districts where the colors mimic the school colors or school theme.

There are other site planning considerations as well. "You need to be close to a water source and comfort station," says Todd Cochran. "Water fountains are very important. It's also important to be not too far from the parking lot, but at the same time be far enough away to be safe. Having a barrier of distance is good, but a physical barrier is also necessary. There are different size fences and different ordinances regulating them. In urban area four to five feet is usually required depending local building codes. For a big soccer complex, there may not be any fencing. It depends on the age group. The younger the age, the more you'd need to fence them in."

When placing shade structures, it's important to consider the proximity to trees. The farther the play area is from trees, the larger the shade structure needs to be. By combining different levels of panel, it's possible to provide cover for the structures, plus seating for older people, caretakers and younger children.

Safety is the Biggest Issue of All

John Thorner, President of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), feels that the role of the National Playground Safety Institute (NPSI) cannot be underscored enough. They provide training for inspectors. Safety has to do with the equipment and the layout as well. They have trained ten thousand people. There are all sorts of issues in designing playgrounds--site considerations as well as characteristics of the ground itself.

Teri Hendy of Site Masters, Inc., is a design and safety consultant for the NPSI. She notes that a common mistake is that often people are more concerned about their budget and the amount of space they're dealing with. They pick out things from a catalog without giving too much thought to whether the equipment is appropriate to the age group. They also often don't take into consideration what is in the nearby play spaces. They focus on one part of the site only.

Because of the intensity of use--some playgrounds are used by hundreds of children, 10 hours per day, seven days a week--liability is a big issue. It also represents a constraint as far as types of equipment and types of design. In less frequented suburban parks, this hasn't always been a consideration.

Which Brings Up the Subject of Nature

If you want a playground to be successful it needs to be used by people of all ages. It needs to be a comfortable environment for parents and caregivers, with easy access to the site, to shade shelters and restrooms, with areas to walk and a variety of activities in the environment. There are ASTM standards of course, but they are so focused on the standards they don't focus on the developmental standards. Children need to commune with nature. "We aren't planning play areas that allow children space to communicate with nature," says Teri Hendy. "Children suffer from nature deficit. I've been designing around this for the last 15 years--getting people to design in the natural environment. People--and designers, too--worry about maintenance. Manipulative play with water, or natural areas to manipulate sand and water, bring a lot to a play area."

Renowned playground designer Isamu Noguchi wanted to create tiny public realms that would inspire children to use their imaginations, and submitted this as one of several designs for a playground in Riverside Park that was never built. They are now planning a Noguchi inspired playground that will included two mounds with slides, one of which is ADA accessible, plus spinners, swings and a spray shower. (See LASN's September 2004, article on Isamu Noguchi's Playground Designs). Photo courtesy of Kevin Noble

Making Accessibility Accessible

Teri Hendy teaches classes on playground maintenance and management and she knows that a parks superintendent is looking at the ease of maintenance and trying to maintain clear site lines through a play area. This reduces vandalism. They may often overlook issues relating to drainage that have a huge impact on the success of a playground. Attention needs to be paid to the types of surfaces used. That has a lot to do with whether the playground can be used by children with physical disabilities. Poured in place rubber can be used by almost everyone and has good impact attenuating properties.

Engineered wood fiber is also considered by the Justice Department as a good material for underneath playground equipment, however it needs more maintenance and must have good drainage. Sand and pea stone or fine gravel is often used under equipment but it's not considered accessible.

The Access Board and the NRPA are working together to develop a course for landscape architects on designing and developing playgrounds, which is unveiling in October. Teri Hendy is writing the curriculum for this new set of courses.

A new playground in Fort Green, Brooklyn called the South Oxford playground, formerly an empty lot with abandoned buildings, is now a premier playground with lots of plantings and a beautiful spray ground with a forest of tall cattails. Photo courtesy of Malcolm Pinckney/New York City Parks & Recreation

There are, however, many kinds of accessibility. There is always the important issue of access into the park from the parking area and from the park entry into playground. Tom Norquist, President of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) says, "One of the simplest things to control is good access to the equipment and that is a fundamental element. But it can be overlooked."

Norquist often sees entries that are very steep or have maintenance issues such as tree roots pushing up through the sidewalk, erosion or wear, and freeze thaw heave. Then suddenly the pathway is a barrier or could become a trip hazard. Having a well thought out route is taken for granted. But when wheel chairs can't navigate, or grandmas with walkers, or mothers pushing strollers, or children on tricycles can't get there, even if they build the most beautiful new play area the world has ever seen, it's irrelevant because you can't get to it.

Fencing in general is a good way to protect children and ball players, typically from transportation. It keeps them from running into the street or the parking lot. There's an ASTM standard for fencing. It doesn't necessarily have to be high, it just has to be effective.

It's important to make spaces where children of all ages and abilities can play together. At the splash pad at Hines Playground, there is as much physical play value built in as possible. Noting the trend toward obesity and sedentary life styles, which particularly impact minority inner city dwellers, New York City has been building more playgrounds. Photo courtesy of Danny Avila/New York City Parks & Recreation

Play Value and Developmental Themes

There's a school of thought regarding having play equipment that is geared toward the ability of the user. When you talk to mothers and fathers of younger children, it's clear that pre-school children need a place where they can learn basic play skills on equipment that's not quite as challenging. These are lower structures--not built up as high as those meant for school age children. The reality is that, based on ability, once they've mastered the needed skills they migrate into the next area.

Steve King is Director at Large for the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers of America (IPEMA), a landscape architect, as well as president of playground equipment manufacturer Landscape Structures. Selection of materials is very important. Vandalism and accessibility is very important and designers must be aware of all these issues.

When designing a playground, one should focus on the style of play equipment so you don't end up with cookie cutter play areas. One should, look at the playground as an environment for all kinds and ages of people. This one has ADA accessible play areas, lots of shade and structures for younger children in close proximity to those designed for older children, making it possible for the whole family to use the same playground.

They have standards for equipment, which must pass a 3000-hour test, plus a UV and salt fog test. Some colors absorb more heat than others, but not necessarily the darker ones. Stainless steel, at certain times of the day when the sun hits it right, becomes a frying pan. "Take slides for instance," says King. "You need to make sure you orient the slide surface away from the hot sun, north or east are best for your layouts.

Not only do they design equipment, they also design playgrounds. As a result, they understand safety, and accessibility and what brings kids together. Social interactions are learned in playgrounds as well as conflict resolution, which is a very important part of a child's skill development.

In the coming year, more and more attention will be paid to the value of play for brain development and what King calls The Natural Initiative, which is how to design playgrounds to make them more comfortable for families, too.

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December 9, 2019, 11:14 am PDT

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