PRB Articles


Live More, Play More

Photos Courtesy of Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission

While growing up, my personal experience of playground fun was swaying on tall swings that took me up towards the sky. Then my friends and I would race to the huge metal slide for even more fun! Every day after school we would run to this special place: we could be independent, make our own rules, play pretend games, make new friends, or see old ones—it was a real social meeting place.

Indoor Vs. Outdoor

Well, in the intervening years I have certainly seen a change in how kids play. Due to their fascination with the electronic world, it seems that kids have become unengaged with playing outside. They don’t have to imagine their play space or make up adventures anymore because most of their fun has already been created for them within electronic games and wonderful 3-D animation. As a result, landscape architects and design professionals are challenged with the task of getting kids outdoors to “play more.” To accomplish this, traditional playgrounds have to be renovated and updated to show off new equipment. Kids need a creative play environment similar to the excitement found in electronic gaming systems; kids need interaction and the challenge of the unknown. A designer must create a play space that is unique, fun, and imaginative. These architects and designers have to re-live their own childhood experiences when designing creative play spaces and custom-designing play equipment.

A Place In Which To Play

Today, most playground companies have their own graphics sections where play equipment can be custom-designed. However, the landscape architect is responsible for creating a playground space that is exciting and unpredictable, just like that in the kids’ electronic games. The Landscape Architecture Section of the Maryland-National CapitolPark and Planning Commission has been creating custom playgrounds since 2008.

The seven landscape architects have had fun designing imaginative playground spaces for Prince George County citizens, and letting our personal “childhood” experiences guide us. The parks and recreation department’s slogan is “Live More, Play More.” In order to accomplish this, we have had to be thrifty with funding sources and create fun play spaces within budget and schedule demands. By thinking “outside the box,” we have brought a “Disney”-type of fun to our playgrounds. Twenty “imagination playgrounds” have already been created, and six more are under design or construction. Our community residents are having fun on these playgrounds, and the kids are now getting outside to play!

Here are three cost-saving tips for creating custom imagination playgrounds:

  • Use custom play-feature material (glass fiber reinforced concrete)

  • Use existing catalog equipment (re-purposed or re-envisioned)

  • Purchase trade-show exhibit equipment (for new ideas)

Use Custom Play-Feature Material

Several new techniques that playground manufacturers are using include Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete (GFRC). This material, which is like “adult” papier-mâché, can be used to create almost anything. It can be painted, is durable, and can provide a realistic design. With this material, we have created a dragon’s head and feet; a Native American Indian totem pole, drum, and canoe; and tree trunk slides, etc. GFRC has been the “fun” factor that has allowed the staff to create characters such as talking gnomes, 7-foot-high squirrels, 12-foot-long balance-beam snakes, large bears, and ants, complete with a kid-

Playgrounds must be designed to capture the same enthusiasm as video games and 3-D animation.

sized ant hill. Currently, staff is working on creating a themed Maryland horse racing playground, complete with horses, climbing rock walls with horse sculptures, and a play barn. There is no end to the “imagination” factor, which includes ships, talking seahorses, treasure chests, and a sand castle! Wow, and kids can’t wait to get outside and play! Another cost-saving tip: because these pieces of equipment are heavy, they require a large footer and a deep space for the footer. Material costs and production time can be factors, but there is a savings because maintenance is almost non-existent. Besides, the material is almost indestructible, which outweighs the replacement costs of standard equipment and any vandalism.

Use Existing Catalog Equipment

Current playground equipment found in manufacturers’ catalogs can provide a wealth of new ideas if it is re-purposed or re-envisioned. For example, a typical web climber was redesigned as a “Native American dream catcher.” The posts of the web climber were enhanced with new feather pieces, and the web design had plastic beads added for true character or play replication. Also, an “O”-ring climber was re-envisioned as the internal stomach of a dragon’s body that kids can actually climb through! Also, ordinary equipment can simply be changed, for example, by designing a large butterfly tabletop for a sand box, or turning tree-forest equipment into a flower garden by changing brown poles to lime-green flower stems and adding different shade toppers from catalog trees to flower petals. An additional cost-saving tip: it usually doesn’t cost much to change pieces of existing equipment into creative play designs. Ask your playground manufacturer about available options and put different play pieces together.

Purchase Trade-Show Exhibit Equipment

Each year playground manufacturers create new visionary designs for play equipment. These ideas are “showcased” at trade shows and conferences. The display equipment has already been uniquely designed and “ready” for installation, which is a timesaving step in helping a project meet a deadline. Often a manufacturer is willing to “unload” some equipment at a trade-show at a discounted price. Another cost-saving tip: take advantage of the uniqueness of style in newly designed equipment and the cost savings on shipping fees. Contact a manufacturer prior to the trade-show exhibit to “pre-purchase” playground equipment. Be careful, though, because sometimes the trade-show equipment is built for a “floor display” model with surface mount posts, so verify that the play equipment can be accommodated in an “in-ground” post mounting system. Have a playground site ready for construction or store equipment while the playground is designed.

Brenda J. Iraola is the Landscape Architect Supervisor for the Maryland-NationalPark and Planning Commission, Department of Parks and Recreation. Reach her at brenda.iraola@pgparks.com .

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