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Thematic Play Environments

Educational & Interactive, Not Just Fun and Games

Joseph D. Perello is the parks and landscape architecture department manager at Schoor DePalma. He was a member of the design team for the Manasquan River Resevoir playground and Turkey Swamp Park playground.

When the Monmouth County Parks Systems (MCPS) of central New Jersey wanted new playgrounds designed for two of their largest county parks, they knew they did not want the old standard of a few play structures chosen from a catalog and surrounded with loose safety surfacing wood fiber material. They wanted playgrounds that would help realize the full potential of their park sites by incorporating historical and educational themes that celebrate life in Monmouth County. The County realized that, to achieve this, they would need a consultant uniquely qualified in playground design, who also had the creativity to integrate the surrounding environment and the rich cultural history of Monmouth County into the design of a playground in a fun, yet educational way.

MCPS interviewed several firms and contracted with the Parks & Landscape Architecture Department at Schoor DePalma, led by Joseph Perello, CLA, ASLA, to provide design and construction administration services for new playgrounds to be located at the Manasquan River Reservoir and Turkey Swamp Park sites. Perello and the Landscape Architects at Schoor DePalma held several brain-storming sessions with MCPS, investigating a variety of factors that might affect the design of the new playgrounds including the history of both park sites, the significance of the sites within the Monmouth County Park System, the environmental attributes of each of the park sites, potential user capacity, goals of the MCPS, user group age distribution, the involvement of the playgrounds within existing and proposed parks programs and potential themes for the playground sites.

It was not long before the Landscape Architects presented their schematic designs for the themed play areas that incorporated opportunities for environmental and historic education, as well as social interaction among users.

Manasquan River Reservoir Playground

The Turkey Swamp Playground is equipped with a unique "archeological dig area" which is designed to create a fun and educational playground. The dig area incorporates a "long house" structure to provide shelter. A climbing wall was erected near a sitting area with informative signage on rock climbing techniques. The sitting area mimics a giant compass with a three-foot-long arrowhead pointing towards true north.

The playground areas and all components at the Manasquan River Reservoir celebrate the aquatic environment and associated wildlife of the 720-acre lake and adjacent woodlands that comprise the 1,200-acre park site. The playground area, designed to perpetuate this aquatic environment theme, is situated in a wooded opening on a bluff overlooking the lake, the visitors’ center, fishing piers and the site of a future environmental center.

Users enter the play area from a free-form concrete sidewalk that leads you through an open-space, multi-purpose turf area, down the path and through a narrow corridor of woodland. The aquatic theme begins right near the entrance with wooden pilings wrapped with nautical hemp lines that serve as bollards, funnelling pedestrians into the playground space. While the nautical bollards add a decorative and light-hearted bit of nautical style to the area, education is never far behind as, adjacent to the bollards, there are ground-mounted play panels displaying information about native reptiles, fish and plant life.

Upon entering the play area, the paving pattern changes to a large sitting area constructed of patterned and colored concrete in the shape of a large-mouth bass, a species of fish with which the lake is stocked. The paving colors that comprise the “fish” are coordinated with the rest of the play components and the landscape paving, which serves as part of the accessible route to the playground, gives way to a bright blue, rubberized, poured-in-place playground safety surfacing material, creating a mini-lake effect within the playground.

The rubberized play surface continues in this fluid-like pattern to connect to the transfer station on the two separate modular play structures. These two large structures are separated into two distinct play zones, one for 2- to 5-year-old children, and one for 5- to 12-year-old children. The swing areas are also separated into appropriate play zones and offer not only fun, but also scenic views of the lake and surrounding woodlands.

Manasquan Reservoir Playground incorporates an aquatic theme in the design of the playground. A walkway leads to the center of the playground where the pavement pattern creates the image of a large-mouth bass. Sitting on top of a bluff, the playground looks out over fishing piers, the visitor's center and the site of a future environmental center.

The play equipment incorporates the overall theme by including custom play panels that educate as well as encourage social interaction among users. Play panels with aquatic and woodland wildlife are included on the structures and at ground-mounted areas. The “track ride,” located on the 5- to 12-year-old children's play structure, allows kids to enjoy an overall view of the lake, and the blue poured-in-place safety surface was constructed below the ride to deploy a large free-form “puddle” that children can fly across as they picture themselves jumping across the lake.

Blue poured-in-place safety surfacing material is also included in all high use areas such as beneath slides and swings. A black ornamental fence with silhouettes of native fish, mammals and vegetation surrounds the area, further encouraging environmental education and social interaction while prohibiting children from wandering off into the woodlands and other un-designated areas.

Environmental education opportunities also exist along adjacent woodland trails that connect the playground to existing facilities such as fishing piers, the visitors’ center, a boat-launching ramp, a five-mile perimeter trail that encompasses the 720-acre lake and the future Environmental Education Center, which will be constructed along the lake’s western shoreline.

The general public, bus loads of schoolchildren and families that frequent the site for its many existing recreational opportunities have already begun heavy use of this new facility.

Turkey Swamp Park Playground

This playground is located in a wooded area and, thus, enjoys a great deal of shade, not only helping to bring more of the natural environment into the playground area, but also making the playground comfortable year-round. Adding to the playgrounds amenities is a nearby comfort station with restrooms for the convenience of parks users. An exposed aggregate concrete walkway leads pedestrians from the park area to the comfort stations and from there to the playground and picnic areas. The exposed aggregate concrete is comprised of stone materials indigenous to the site, and blends well with the native, gravelly soil used to construct the park roadways and vehicular parking areas.

All components of the Turkey Swamp Park Playground incorporate nature while highlighting the history of the Lenai Lenape (len-eye la-nop-eh), the Native American tribe that was dominant in the area during the nation’s infancy and is known to have inhabited the site. Users enter the playground through a portal constructed of native cedar tree logs and a split rail fence that blends with the existing park fencing and woodland environment.

The path then leads visitors to two distinct play zones, separating the 2- to 5-year-old and the 5- to 12-year-old children's play equipment. The path continues to a centralized sitting area that allows care-givers to adequately supervise play areas as they relax among the large oak and pine trees preserved and incorporated into the design of the playground and adjacent picnic area.

The sitting area was designed to look like a giant compass, designating North, South, East and West as well as true north, specified by a large “North Arrow” the shape and texture of a three-foot-long arrowhead. This compass reminds visitors of the area’s active participation during the discovery and colonization of the New World and is made useful by the presence of a custom circular wood bench, situated to provide supervision of the playground areas.

Adjacent to the sitting area is a pre-cast, eight-foot-tall boulder climbing wall, the first public installation of its kind for the state of New Jersey. The wall is accompanied by signage explaining the various methods of rock climbing. The boulder wall is the color of the native stone and is a big hit with visitors to the playground.

Another exciting feature of the playground is the “archeological dig area” that was envisioned by Joe Perello, parks and landscape architecture department manager at Schoor DePalma, to further inform park visitors about the historic and cultural significance of the park site. The dig area is six feet by 10 feet and comprised of concrete structures (custom-made for this project) anchored by footings. Visitors can dig through loose material to uncover faux Native American artifacts such as arrowheads and pottery as well as fossilized fish skeletons and plant material.

The entire archeological dig area is covered by a custom designed shade structure designed to resemble a “long house,” a structure that the Lenai Lenape constructed for shelter. The long house provides shade for the dig area and the sitting area adjacent to it. Interpretative signage describing the significance of the long house structure and the dig area to playground visitors was included.

The modular playground structures and spring riders contribute to the natural theme by being color coordinated to blend with the wooded environment, while also having been custom designed to provide color and interest for young playground users. So far, the butterfly spring rider has proven most popular.

Play panels, as were incorporated into the Manasquan River Reservoir Park, have been provided to further encourage environmental education and social interaction among playground users.

The fun does not stop at the playground area; it continues throughout the park along nature trails that lead visitors through the wooded hillsides and to the nearby lake for more discoveries. This playground has proven to be a success with the visitors to the park’s picnic areas and campground facilities.

The themed playground facilities at both parks provide educational opportunities and encourage social interaction among users by incorporating the surrounding park uses, environmental attributes and site history into the play equipment, site furnishings, paving patterns and safety surfacing.

These facilities provide unique opportunities to educate children about the overall park environment and site history. By designing themes into playground environments, repeated visitors to the parks begin identifying the playgrounds by their unique qualities (such as the “fish” playground, or the “climbing wall” playground) and begin to associate more qualities of the surrounding landscape with their everyday fun and games.

Playground Design Team: Schoor DePalma (Joseph Perello, CLA, CPSI,

Mark Liss, CLA, Eric Mattes, CLA, Adam Alexander, CPSI)

Monmouth County Park System (Spence Wickham, Joe Sardonia, Andrew North)


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June 27, 2019, 2:04 am PDT

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