Variable Interest

At the early stages of planning a new playground--before actually starting a concept design or examining budget estimates--it is important to develop a checklist of the information needed to make the big decisions for construction. Although the size and capacity of the playground can be included in this checklist, each item should be based on attendance rather than the common design parameters of available land and the amount of money to be spent. The attraction of each piece of equipment and the playground competition that exists down the street also should be examined. What is needed is a focused feasibility study.

As the name implies, a feasibility study is an analysis of the viability of an idea:

• Is the project financially feasible?

• Is there enough land available to build the designed project?

• Is it in the right location?

• Is there enough money to build and maintain the project?

• Will it be well attended?

• How large does it need to be?

• What equipment should be selected?

Market Population And Penetration Rates

While accurate playground-attendance projection models are difficult to find, they do exist, or can be calculated after conducting some research. Basic resident population numbers and demographics are easy to obtain from the U.S. Census Bureau; ongoing feasibility studies from city planners as well as data collected from retail and other development companies also may be available. However, interpreting these numbers into accurate penetration forecasts of the number of children, their ages and the time of day they will visit a playground can be challenging. Projection models may be available from local city and state parks and recreation departments as well as from land developers that have taken accurate attendance numbers from “tot lots” they have built in residential developments. Local universities and schools may already have this information or be willing to assist in determining these models. Additionally, local playground sales representatives or a facility design company may be asked to assist in this research.

To get started, define the market area in terms of miles of radii by segmenting the market area into distance bands (i.e., zero to one mile, two to three miles, four to five miles, etc.). One can expect up to a 50-percent reduction in penetration rate more than two miles from the playground, which is called distance-delay factor. Segmenting the market is important because it allows for adjustments in the market-penetration rates according to distance. Thus, the population in the zero-to-one-mile band would be assigned a higher penetration rate than one in a more distant band.

Attendance Capacity Requirements

Two different capacity requirements must be determined:

• Design period or design-hour capacity

• Through-put capacity.

The design-hour capacity is determined by a market study. It is one of the major design guidelines, and helps to determine equipment choices as well as the layout of the playground.

This process involves identifying the park’s peak month of attendance (usually July) and estimating attendance for that month (usually 30 to 35 percent of annual attendance, depending on local weather conditions). Then, attendance for the peak month is converted to average weekly attendance, usually by dividing monthly attendance by 4.43, the number of weeks in July. Next, peak-day attendance is estimated. The experience of existing parks has revealed that the peak day--usually Saturday--will account for 25 to 30 percent of weekly attendance. Finally, design-hour attendance is calculated.

Depending on the size of the park and anticipated length of stay, design-hour attendance equals 50 to 60 percent of peak-day attendance. This figure is then used to determine the proper size and capacity requirements of the playground. The number of parking spaces, restrooms, picnic tables, trash receptacles and other physical amenities also rely on the design hour for proper planning of the entire facility.

Meanwhile, the through-put capacity is the number of children who can safely play on a playground per hour. This projected number takes into consideration the number of children who can interact with the playground at any instant, and then forecasts the length of time a child will interact with a particular activity or feature of the playground, and then the subsequent projection of the number per hour. For example, a slide may only take 5 seconds to traverse down the bedway, but more time is needed for the total slide circuit, which includes the time to reach the slide bedway entrance, slide down, go around to the stairs/ladder, and get back to the bedway entrance again, as well as any “wait-your-turn potentials.”

Once an individual “circuit or interaction time” is found, then the last part of the equation is calculating the average number of times a child will participate in an activity before moving on to another. While a slide has one of the highest through-put capacities, a swing has the lowest capacity because only two children may play at one time (one to push and one to ride).

Competition Drives Equipment Choices

One of the major goals in planning a new playground is to add value to a facility as well as to the community. Creating a playground that is similar to others in the area not only diminishes the value of the playground, but does not serve the community in residents’ recreation needs and desires.

Before finalizing a design, inspect playgrounds at schools, tot lots, clubs, churches and other venues in the area. Take photographs and list the different play activities of each playground to ensure the new playground is innovative and has a positive “attraction quotient” for the community.

Attraction Quotient

Once the obvious equipment, such as slides and climbing elements, is selected, the challenge of choosing the most popular individual pieces of equipment that will also fit into capacity needs and budget is difficult. This subject is elusive in the playground industry, as little information exists regarding each playground component or activity’s “attraction quotient.” Polling children in the community, asking the local school about the type of equipment the children prefer, as well as asking the design company to research this issue are all good practices to assist in selecting the most popular activities for a playground.

With due diligence, a playground that best fits the community’s needs will be developed, but it requires time and work. Using the amount of land and budget are design templates of the past. In today’s world, “bang-for-the-buck” is important, and the safety ensured by proper planning is paramount for the project’s success.

George Laibe is certified in loss prevention for amusement and recreation facilities. He lives near Phoenix, Ariz., and can be reached at (480) 575-1477 or via e-mail at