Destination Play

By Eric F. Hornig
Photos: Hitchcock Design Group

“This is probably our favorite place to go & always will be!”

“I cannot express how much I love this park and the concept behind it!”

“This isn't your typical playground.”

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If your playgrounds do not generate this kind of buzz, consider developing a destination play space within your system. These quotes from Yelp reviews get to the root of destination play. It is an experience—unique to the regional context—that contains all the tools a family needs to create memories together. It is a destination, in and of itself, worthy of time, interest, and admiration. We have all been to places like this that captivate our interest, keep us searching for deeper layers of meaning, and are so grounded that we can’t help but love them and want to return. These are destination experiences.

As park and recreation professionals, our missions align perfectly with these types of spaces. Getting children and families outdoors, providing meaningful access to nature, improving health and fitness, and providing high-quality platforms for recreation and social interaction for all ages and abilities are baseline goals of most destination-play projects. With over 34-billion families having children under the age of 18 (U.S. census, 2017), there is plenty of audience to advance the mission and perhaps contribute to the local economy in the process. Clients report an increase of 25 to 35 percent in membership or trackable visitation after robust play experiences are offered, with a recent project being Bison’s Bluff in Schaumburg, Ill., nearly doubling seasonal attendance numbers from 138,000 to 275,000! These visitors often eat, shop, and stay in the area, adding to the local economy, even in small ways. If you want to attract families and get them outdoors, this is a proven way to go.

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Rallying Support
So how do you begin? As with most capital park projects, engage a design team, starting with a landscape architect, but potentially involving other disciplines, depending on your goals. Hear from your internal team first: planning, maintenance, programing, finance, marketing, leadership, and elected leadership. Each will have insights that will bring value to the discussion. Don’t forget to link them back in to review the final design for the same reasons. After you know what the operational and resource limitations may be, the community is next. Invite the public (be sure to include kids) to offer ideas before anything is drawn, and then again to review progress along the way. The design team will likely be on the right track, but the community will sometimes surprise you with tweaks that fit a local understanding of the area. The consensus, pride, and sense of ownership you will build during the process will be critical to the project’s long-term success. The design team will likely engage product vendors to help refine the design, particularly for play equipment. The selected vendors’ ability to deliver and stand behind their products will play an important role in the construction schedule and overall, long-term satisfaction, so make sure you know what you are buying. Lastly, to pull off a special project, find talented craftsmen who take pride in their work, recognize the importance of the project, and are willing to engage in a fair and productive manner. Warning: This may not be the typical low bidder because that person may not have the skills needed to accomplish the work. It might be a construction manager, a collaborative design-build person, or the lowest “qualified” bidder who can help make the community’s dreams a reality.

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Things To Consider

1. Purpose: Will the play experience be for educational purposes, entertainment, or some blend of the two? Do you want families to just experience play, or should they come away with deeper messages—maybe not the first time they visit—but should educational aspects be revealed as they grow with the play space? Should the space stand alone or will staff members be present to help inform play?

2. Style: Remember that a destination playground is unique in character, style, and execution. It should not look like any other park within the system or region. This means you need to define a style that can only exist here, in this park, at this time. That doesn’t mean if you live in Texas, it has to be Alamo-themed, or ocean-themed if you live in Florida, but the style needs to have a reason for being the way it is that makes sense to visitors. At the Bellaboos Imagination Garden, a new project opening soon in Lake County, Ind., outside its already-successful indoor play space, a pirate-themed play area is emerging. Although nowhere near the ocean, this whimsical area theme is woven into a story about the existing mascot and friends he meets on his adventures that will make perfect sense to those who already enjoy their programming.

3. Infrastructure: This is a great word for stuff that no one appreciates unless it is missing. Things like shade, bathrooms, parking, walkways, drinking fountains, benches, tables, recycle containers, lights, and maybe free Wi-Fi, are not particularly glamorous but increase the duration of a comfortable stay for guests. Make sure you have these covered and be prepared to react to demands that may not have been foreseen.

4. Materials: Using materials that have longevity, like stone, concrete, and steel, can help manage long-term costs. Tailor the material choice to align with performance expectations, using less-durable materials sparingly, where change is likely to occur. Use renewable materials where a natural look and feel is desired.

5. Water: Consider water. It is magical for children, well, to all of us really. It comes with a long list of headaches and maintenance challenges, but water will attract people. Period. With careful planning and a close eye to safety, water can add tremendous value to a play space.

6. Context: Consider the selection of the site for economic, social, and natural resources. You want a site that is marketable, ready to be developed, safe, and the right amount of natural beauty that can be embraced in a responsible way. Don’t underestimate the value of the environment that the play experience sits within. Don’t buy the biggest piece of playground equipment you can afford and place it in a ring of engineered wood fiber. Instead, thoughtfully sculpt the land, add interpretive signs, add multiple access points, places to sit, places to connect, and layer each element of the site with details that strengthen the style or theme.

7. Operations: With an increase of visitors comes an increase in maintenance, potentially increased staff needs, some misuse, some need to educate or “train” visitors, and escalated replacement of wear items. It will happen, so plan for it financially and programmatically. Plan some downtime, when things can be addressed, like closing every Monday morning, just to touch things up, pick up trash, and give the surroundings a chance to recover. Consider security, safety, and emergency plans and how the physical site may be impacted by the requirements of each.

8. Budget: This is a big one. How big is your vision? How big is your pocketbook? And do they align? Designers can draw and dream for days (guilty), but it really has no value if it can’t be built. The question of size comes along with the budget as they are directly related. Consider somewhere between a half-acre to two acres to offer a meaningful experience as a reasonable starting point, depending on the anticipated use. It is important to set a realistic budget, have good contingencies, and realize that the market is ever-changing. “Custom anything” implies expensive, and since the intent is to build custom experiences here…well, you get the picture. Not everything has to be custom; donors tend to get behind projects like these, and projects can be phased in, but nothing can slow momentum quicker than having too big a vision that just cannot be afforded.

9. Success: Tell everyone about the project, engage social media, and don’t underestimate the power of parent blogs, addressing hiccups quickly to avoid issues. Expect success, plan for expansion, plan for replacement of items so popular they get worn out, and plan for rotation of experiences, seasonally. Keep it fresh; Disney has projects planned for the next decade or more, so consider doing the same on your own scale.

If all goes well, next time families visit your destination playground, you will hear, “My daughter LOVED the park, did NOT want to leave,” “My kids ADORE this place,” and “So, so, so, so cool!”

Eric Hornig is a Principal and landscape architect with Hitchcock Design Group’s Recreation Studio and can be reached at ehornig@hitchcockdesigngroup.com. Hitchcock Design Group is a landscape architecture and planning firm with offices in Chicago and Naperville, Ill.