Powered By Nature

Today’s youth are far more sedentary than previous generations due to multi-channel television, gaming systems, and digital devices that discourage children from going outside to explore, run, and play. A recent United Nations study reported that 94 percent of a child’s day is spent indoors with 8 hours watching some type of screen.

While many playgrounds are designed with good intentions, they often lack the environment to keep children and adults interested. In 2013, the city of Elk River, Minn., set out to change this. In June, the first “destination playground” opened with a theme design as well as unique and iconic features that appeal to a broad range of users, including children with disabilities. 

The Orono Park playground began with a reference to the city’s brand—Powered by Nature. In community-interest surveys, residents frequently cited their passion for the outdoors—hunting, fishing, walking/biking, and the many natural and man-made amenities as a draw to Elk River. The city’s park designer worked to incorporate this strength into a destination play system to further enhance the Powered by Nature attitude.

The Nature Of The Playground

The public process to decide the final playground design included input from school children who visited other play areas to experience the different features and provide feedback on which pieces they liked best. After decades of building small neighborhood parks with limited recreational amenities, a recent strategy is to build fewer, but larger, multipurpose play areas, where children and adults are able to interact more closely.

Rather than relying solely on a catalog from which a few adults choose the amenities, or on ideas based on what adults think might be fun, successful playground planning occurs when children are allowed to participate in the design process. Interestingly, the feedback received from the first public design meeting was almost exactly the same as that received from 120 fifth graders at a second meeting held at a local elementary school. Each fifth grader was provided a ballot card to vote for a preferred design and to explain why it was his or her favorite. 

The overwhelming favorite was the iconic climbing tower with a nature theme. Both children and adults wanted this feature in the center of the playground. The other popular nature-themed features included a rotating climber, a roller slide, a spinner, a climbing boulder, and the Oodle swings—fully accessible, dish-like swings that can be used by as many as four children at a time.

Age-Appropriate Playground

The Orono Park playground is also Elk River’s first age-appropriate play area. Two spaces within the playground are designed with amenities for specific age groups and are identified with specific signage. 

Age-appropriate playgrounds are designed to provide safe, developmentally appropriate play experiences for children of two different age groups. In its Handbook for Public Playground Safety, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) notes, “Preschool and school-age children differ dramatically not only in physical size and ability, but also in their cognitive and social skills. Therefore, age-appropriate playground designs should accommodate these differences with regard to the type, scale, and the layout of equipment.”

The handbook divides playground users into two groups: 

  • Preschool children, 2 to 5 years old
  • School-age children, 5 to 12 years old

Preschool Children Ages 2 to 5

These young children enjoy dramatic play and imitating others. They like a place of their own, and have a limited attention span. The best playground challenges involve climbing over, under, and around objects, plus activities that foster fine motor skills. Obviously, the equipment is smaller and not as challenging as found in most playgrounds. The area at the Orono Park playground designed for this group includes a hollow log and small tree trunks to climb, and a small stand with a musical panel. 

School-Age Children Ages 5 to 12

Physical challenges for developing gross motor skills are especially important for this age group. Older children forget that preschoolers are smaller and weaker and accidents may result when engaged in high-spirited play around younger children. 

Sustainable Fun Playground

The Orono Park playground is one of the largest destination playgrounds in the Twin Cities’ Northwest metro. Not only does the one-of-a­-kind structure uniquely suit the community, but is also constructed and maintained with nature-friendly materials. It is also the first Elk River playground that has free Wi-Fi service. 

Michael Hecker is the Parks and Recreation Director for the city of Elk River, Minn. Reach him at MHecker@ElkRiverMN.gov.