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Play Structures on Private Campuses

Designs for every space, every age, and every purpose

By Jenny Boyle, regional editor

The playground for 4 to 6 year olds at Saddleback Church was designed to resemble ships coming to port. The roughly 6,000 square foot space is buffered by a parking lot and a building, so to increase space near the play structure at the far end, a portion of the hill was dug out and a rock retaining wall was put in place. Photo by Jenny Boyle

The developers for these private Southern California playgrounds all had certain goals in mind when they set out to build them.

Child development experts worldwide have written volumes about the essential need of "play" during childhood. Not only do children learn to hone important motor skills, but playing on a playground can help a child develop emotionally, socially and intellectually as well. So it's easy to see why designers spend months researching the best components to include in a playground project. The right mix of active and passive play equipment can make for an educational and fun experience. Take a look at these four, very different private playgrounds and see how the designers met the needs of the children who would use them.

Orange County Jewish Community Center--Irvine

When the designers at LPA Inc., in Irvine, began planning the playground at the Orange County Jewish Community Center, they knew their client wanted three separate areas for different age groups. Arash Izadi and Joe Yee worked with the folks at Kompan to design graduated play areas that incorporated geometric shapes, bright colors, and several textures.

This circular section of rubber safety surfacing, by Playsafe, Inc., is one example of how the designers used geometric shapes to designate different areas of play. They paved a bike path around the area and then planted grass around that. The use of different textures and colors is important to a child's sensory perception. Photo by Cris Costea

"The client wanted to stimulate both active and passive 'play,'" says Izadi, a landscape architect. "We tried to provide space for both by adding grassy areas, paved surfaces, and the playground equipment."

The infant play yard-for children 23 months and under-required very little play equipment. "Kids at that age can't really do much," says Izadi. explaining that infant children don't have the developmental skills to play on more activity-based equipment.

Yee, who did the main design for all three playgrounds, put the focus on texture and sensory perception in the infant play yard. He incorporated a grassy area, some paving, and safety surfacing beneath two small pieces of play equipment and around a circular sitting bench. The children have a small slide and a playhouse structure that provides for imaginative play. The area accommodates 24 infants and is separated from the other two playgrounds by a wrought-iron fence.

The design team performed an intense study of how to precisely angle shade structures over each of the three playgrounds. They worked with Shadesails, Inc. to create 3-D models that would help them determine where the sun would hit at different times in the year and where shade patterns would fall. Height clearances, drainage and the overall geometric design were all taken into consideration. Photo by Cris Costea

The playground for children 24 to 35 months was designed for twice as many little bodies and a lot more activity. Yee carried the theme of geometric shapes into this area by placing the small play structure on a circular space of safety surfacing, which is surrounded by a paved bike path. The client also desired a water play station to encourage sensory perception. Yee designed a sand pit area that would accommodate 10 to 15 children and would act as a drainage area for the water. Not only does the sand provide a place for the water to go, it also offers another texture for children to experience.

The many active components of the toddler playground are balanced with a grassy area, circular sitting walls, and a paved surface in a checkerboard pattern. "You have active stimulation and passive stimulation, motor skills and mental skills," says Izadi. "We wanted to make sure to include all the different aspects of play."

The third and largest playground, for the three to five age group, can hold from 280 to 300 children. The client wanted a lot of hands on equipment for this age group, so not only was a large play structure installed, but Yee also created an herb garden, a bike path, a large green space, a sand pit and an area for painting. The geometric theme was again carried out with the use of the checkerboard paving, circular safety surface spaces, and the circular sitting walls.

Shade was a big issue for all three playgrounds. Because the space was newly developed, there were no mature trees to lend shady areas. Izadi and Yee did an intense study of the best way to incorporate shade structures into their design.

"We knew if we were to just put something over the entire play area, the sun would still be hitting the play structure most of the day," he says. To remedy this, they hung tensioned fabric canopies at particular points over the three play structures. The geometric shapes of the shade sails lend themselves to the overall "shapes" theme. "If you look at it in plain view, you can see the triangles, squares, circles and patterns of the pavement," says Izadi.

McDowell Elementary School--Laguna Niguel

When Greg Cygan set out to revamp the playground at McDowell Elementary, in Laguna Niguel, space was his number one concern.

"We had a very specific 27 by 44 foot area to work with," says the project manager, whose wife is the school's executive director. "It's not like at a park where you're starting from scratch."

Lack of space was a big issue at McDowell Elementary School. The new playground needed to fit entirely within a 27' by 44' space, and that had to include fall zones. By building up, rather than out, and by replacing the old monkey bars with a swirl slide that basically ended where it began, the playground can accommodate more children while still providing them with several different play features. Photo by McDowell Elementry

Recently updated codes required the school's old wood play set to be replaced. Some of the components on the older structure were no longer deemed safe for the children due to extended fall zones. Cygan chose Little Tykes to help design a playground that would be fun and safe and, most importantly, would fit.

"First, we had to decide whether we wanted to go with wood or plastic. You have to look at categories based on your budget," says Cygan. "Also, certain components reach too far out and require a larger fall zone. A larger space means more money. So, with this playground we tried to maximize the amount of fun within the given space." Cygan enlisted the help of his six children to choose which components would be included in the new design.

"I opened the book and let them look through the pictures and pick out what they wanted," he says. "Of course we couldn't do all the options, but it was helpful to know what they liked."

Some options that could not be included in the new design were monkey bars and swings. "Swings are going away because they require more space," says Cygan. "New specifications require the fall areas to be bigger. So, for example, a set of four swings requires a space that is about 32 by 32 feet and that space can only accommodate a few children. But in that same space, with a different play structure, you could accommodate 25 children."

The building committee at McDowell chose to install rubber safety surfacing rather than wood chips or sand. It makes for an even surface so children do not have to step up into the playground area. Before the rubber surface could be put down, a 2-1/2 inch concrete "bathtub" had to be laid, and then filled with the surface in layers. Photo by Jenny Boyle

Cygan thanks the folks at Little Tykes for suggesting alternative play equipment that children would enjoy. "When we wanted to take out the monkey bars, they suggested the swirl slide," he says. "It's fun and it ends basically where it starts. It's a lot of fun in a lot less space." Cygan says choosing components is important for what you want the child to get out of the playground.

"You always want to encourage movement, but even waiting in line for the slide teaches children patience," he says. "The social interaction children deal with on the playground is an important teaching tool."

Picking equipment that enhances a child's learning environment is important, but Cygan says it won't do any good if the child gets bored after a few sessions on the playground. "The key is really to find something that continues to challenge and entertain children," he says. The new structure, with its height and bright colors, has kept children coming back all school year long.

Red Hill Lutheran School--Tustin

When Leslie Smith first arrived at Red Hill Lutheran School, in Tustin, she was a little shocked at the condition of the elementary school's two playgrounds. Like McDowell Elementary, Red Hill's playgrounds were facing a required update after new codes were put in place for the 2002-2003 school year.

Rather than installing rubber safety surfacing, the preschool teachers chose to keep the wood chip surfacing to provide another tactile environment for children to experience. The play structure incorporates many components suggested by the National Program for Playground Safety, including low steps, short slides and a crawl tunnel. Photo by Jenny Boyle

"We had to get rid of everything that was installed before 1997," says the school principal. The preschool area was in bad need of a revamp. It was covered in dirt, with a large tree in the center of the space, and old railroad ties lining the entire area. It needed a new structure and safety surfacing, and the tree and railroad ties had to go. Smith worked with GameTime to create a unique play space for the younger children. A play structure was installed with low platforms, a tunnel, and a double slide. It sits atop a surface covered in wood chips, rather than rubber safety surfacing. The preschool teachers felt that keeping the wood chip surface was important to the children's sensory perception.

"The wood chip area serves as another tactile environment for children to play in," says Smith. "We could have taken it out to put in rubber safety surfacing, but the teachers felt it would take away an option for children to play." Sara Henry, the preschool director at Red Hill, says the choice to keep the wood chip safety surfacing was the right one. To the children, the wood chips serve as more than just a safer place to fall.

"The kids use the play structure as a pirate ship and treat the wood chip area as the 'ocean,' or it becomes a volcano with the wood chips as the 'hot lava,'" says Henry. "It's good for their development."

The new playground at Red Hill Lutheran School is double the size of the older structure it replaced. The goal of this design was to incorporate as many upper-body strength elements as possible. The school competes in the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge each year, so it was important to include components such as pull-up bars, monkey bars and climbing poles. Photo by Jenny Boyle

With the playground for the older children, Smith had very specific goals in mind. The older students participate in the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge each year, and Smith wanted to design a playground that would help build their upper-body strength, as well as comply with safety standards and space requirements. She began by almost doubling the playground area. Then, she picked as many components as she could pack into the space, including a set of pull-up bars, a monkey bar bridge, and various climbing apparatuses to get to platforms on the structure.

"We were choosing pieces that required strength," she says. Though much of the play structure is devoted to components like that, Smith also made sure to include features for the younger children as well. A smaller slide was added to the structure and a separate area was designated for swings. The wood chip safety surfacing is in place at this play area as well, though Smith says the school will probably replace it with rubber safety surfacing in the future. Her main goal was achieved, however. She brought the playground up to code, and gave both age groups something to be excited about when recess time comes along.

Saddleback Church--Lake Forest

Playgrounds can do more than just offer a place for children to let out energy and exercise their imaginations. Karen Kelly, director of development at Saddleback Church, in Lake Forest, says "edu-tainment" was the goal for the playground areas surrounding a new children's building on the church campus. The landscape architects at Rabben Herman Design Office worked with Kelly; Sam Lewis, the project manager; and Tim Loza, the director of construction, to design a unique play environment.

The goal of the development team at Saddleback Church was to create an environment that was unlike the typical school or park playground. They wanted Sunday school teachers to utilize the playground as part of their teachings. Kompan designed this "dock" to resemble a Mediterranean Sea port. The ADA accessible SAF DEK path helps designate the "sea" from the "land." Photo by Jenny Boyle

The 4,500 square foot preschool playground at Saddleback illustrates the story of Noah's ark. Preschool approved spring equipment was installed to look like animals marching up to the ship. The "ark" offers ramps and other lower scale equipment for the children to climb on. Photo by Jenny Boyle

"We wanted to create fun learning areas," says Kelly. "And we wanted to make something that was unlike the typical school or park playground." Kelly says the main goal was to design a playground that would help Sunday school teachers illustrate the Bible stories they were teaching in their lessons. The landscape architect spent time researching play structure companies that would give them what they were looking for. "Kompan was good with the themes we were trying to get across," says Loza. "They tried hard to give the us what we wanted."

The ultimate design of the two play areas is straight out of a child's fantasyland. The development team wanted the older children's playground to center on the travels of Paul. The designers included a "dock," three "ships" coming to port, an "ocean" with a water-spouting "whale," and a waterfall with a stream. Kelly says wood chip and rubber safety surfacing really allowed them to be creative with the colors and patterns they used, especially when it came to developing the "ocean waves" and a map of the Mediterranean Sea.

This life-size whale has a concrete base and is covered in the same rubber safety surfacing that was used to make the "waves" in its "ocean." A remote controlled spout shoots out a cool mist from the top of the whale. The porous nature of the safety surface allows any water to drain through it and down into the irrigation system. Photo by Jenny

"The map of the Mediterranean Sea makes the travels of Paul an interactive experience," says Kelly. "The whole idea behind this playground was to give the image of a sea port." The largest "ship" is a massive play structure that children can climb and swing on and the "dock" offers additional climbing structures, as well as a swirl slide. The "whale" provides yet another object for climbing, and the shallow stream gives the kids a chance to cool off in the warmer months.

"The kids are only here maybe once or twice a week," says Kelly. "We really wanted to give them something special that they couldn't find at a park or school." In front of the children's building, the team created what they call a "discovery zone." The area, made mainly with themed plaster on a kid-sized scale, is ideal for parents and children because the kids can play while the parents watch from nearby. Again, the design complies with the Biblical theme by emulating the ancient ruins in Jerusalem.

The church wanted a way to make the travels of the apostle Paul come alive. The landscape architect used different colored rubber safety surfacing to create a map of the Mediterranean Sea and the large play structure was made to resemble a ship that Paul might have sailed on. Photo by Jenny Boyle

Traveling past the "ruins," visitors can see the preschool playground. Though slightly less extravagant, this area still rivals most regular school and park play spaces. It is based on a Noah's Ark theme, complete with spring animals "marching" up a hill to a giant "ship." A combination of rubber and wood chip safety surfacing helps illustrate "dry land" and the oncoming "flood."

Though safety issues hindered some of the design aspects the team would have liked to include, they are really happy with the outcome of the playgrounds. "The theme was the most important part for us and we got that," says Kelly.

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December 7, 2019, 3:52 am PDT

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