Paint With A Broad Brush

The staggering amount of information about the importance of outdoor play, combined with the alarming rise in childhood obesity, has recently given playgrounds the spotlight as places to keep kids active.

Playgrounds on which children are forced to stand in line and wait for a turn on the swings, slide and merry-go-round are designs of the past. Those areas then evolved into a continuous carousel of play with prescribed entry and exit points, as well as integrated access points for children in wheelchairs.

“It is important to design all-inclusive playgrounds so that kids of different abilities are able to play together,” says Brad Work, representative for Anderson Recreational Design in southern Ohio. “We don’t want to exclude anyone when we design a playground.”

The standard playground design in most locations is aptly referred to as a post-and-deck system that has specific entry points--ladders and climbing walls--to specific exit points, like slides. And while the post-and-deck system has progressed to include children with physical disabilities, what about accommodating children with autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

“We needed to broaden our definition of what inclusive play really means; traditionally, people think of wheelchair access,” says Kris Clark, marketing solutions manager with Landscape Structures, a playground equipment manufacturer. “Autism is on the rise, and children in the autism spectrum really thrive with different sensory experiences.” This means creating a playground that is accessible, and includes components such as optical viewers, puzzles, bongos, games and even xylophones, not traditionally seen on a playground..

Getting Physical Mentally

Newer playground designs combine physical, mental and sensory components in appealing to this broad audience of children. “The continuous-play concept allows kids to be able to keep playing,” says Clark. “Over the last five years or so, we moved more into the physical-fitness benefits for kids.”

Some of these features include climbing arches, walls and meshes to develop upper-body strength, while edgeless slides, bottomless slides, spinning bars and wiggly stepping stones help develop core strength and balance.

“We have fitness clusters that can be built with the playground systems,” says Alissa Jones, marketing coordinator for Miracle Recreation Equipment Company. “The playgrounds incorporate climbers and bars where the kids need to use their upper-body strength and more energy.”

The most recent designs in playgrounds not only address physical, mental, sensory and access components, but add a new challenge: There are no specific entry or exit points.

“New playgrounds have ground-to-ground arches and curves with no prescribed entry or exit points,” says Clark. “The children can go over the top, under, through the middle--it is very open and really challenges kids to think about their next step. Where is my hand going to go next? Where is my foot going to go next?”

Play Naturally

Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods provided evidence that children thrive on activities outdoors. As a result, playground designs are appearing in more natural settings with nature paths, butterfly gardens, bushes and trees.

Through the use of glass-fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC), some playground manufacturers are mimicking the look and feel of trees and rocks by literally using a mold of the real thing. “We recognize it is still manufactured and is not real,” says Clark. “The benefits of man-made play equipment are in the design capabilities, durability and that we can design a safe play environment.” The GFRC “tree house” designed by Landscape Structures includes tree steps, limbs and trunks, as well as a tracing panel with raccoons and squirrels carved into the tree.

“We are seeing more demand for recycled materials in playgrounds,” Clark adds. “We offer a product created with 100-percent, post-consumer waste, and another with 73 percent.” Bid letters should include the amount of recycled content in the various products.

On The Ground

Safety surfacing also has a role in designing all-inclusive playgrounds. Wood chips still tend to be the substrate of choice because they are typically available for free from local utility crews, as well as from parks and recreation ground-maintenance crews. Some areas are shifting to recycled tires; however, there is a word of warning on this material. If the rubber is a dark color, the heat on the playground can build up quickly. Rubber mulch and pea gravel also tend to collect dirt, which is then transferred to the children.

The latest development is poured-in-place rubber surfacing, which can be bright, colorful and accessible. “You can get creative with some great designs in bold, bright colors with inlaid lettering or graphics,” says Clark. The poured surface is actually two layers. The bottom layer absorbs the shock if someone falls, while the top layer is the window dressing. Rubberized surfaces are more expensive than wood chips, but they require less maintenance and are easier to clean.

Think Before You Draft

Playgrounds today have a myriad of features--from rubberized surfacing to fully accessible play components. Before diving headfirst into developing the perfect playground, take a step back and obtain help. Decide who the primary users will be, and then invite them to be among the consultants. After all, they’re the ones who will make the playground the spot to be or the area that will gather dust.

Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC, which specializes in media and public relations for outdoor recreation businesses. Her book, 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Cincinnati, is available online and in bookstores. You can reach her at