Playground Trends: Laying the Groundwork (by Taylor Brown)

By Taylor Brown From Community Recreation Magazine

Industry experts share what playground trends are necessary for community rec facilities to implement in play areas.

Playgrounds are imaginative, creative spaces. However, they are always changing. So, it is key to stay up-to-date on the latest playground trends and amenities to meet the needs of all your members, both big and small.

Randy Maltz, the founder and CEO of A-OK Playgrounds based in Austin, Texas, said he has seen a variety of trends recently, especially when it comes to playgrounds at community recreation facilities.

“I am seeing a big trend of getting separate structures for different age groups, so older kids are separated from younger kids, instead of one large structure for all ages,” said Maltz. “Also, I am seeing different ground covers used or centers replacing their old ground covers with rubber mulch or synthetic grass, and even poured-in-place surfacing as options if they have the budget for it. These options require little to no maintenance.”

Another important amenity to consider for your facility is shade structures around playgrounds and the entire property.

“In most cases, shade can be added over playground and picnic areas, or most anywhere,” explained Maltz. “Many people avoid playgrounds and picnic areas during midday or afternoons because of the intense heat and bright sun. They would use these areas much more often if they were covered with shade structures, which can cool the structure off as much as 20 degrees.”

Chris Stange, the project superintendent for the American Playground Company, agreed shade is a growing trend for play structures and said it’s an amenity that best benefits community rec centers. “Whether it be on a playground by itself or over a picnic table, everybody of every age needs shade during a hot summer day,” he explained. “It is also a health benefit.”

Two major trends Nathan Schleicher, the playground designer and product manager for Earthscape, is seeing on the rise are using natural materials and the desire for more site-specific placemaking in playgrounds/parks. According to Schleicher, wood is thermally more comfortable to the touch, more customizable, more sustainable and more back-to-the-roots of children’s outdoor play.

“A generation ago there were zillions of wooden playgrounds, but then we discovered the dangers of pressure-treated wood and cities became nearly ubiquitous consumers of steel and plastic play solutions,” said Schleicher. “Skip forward to today and we have an emerging priority on ‘back to nature’ play opportunities for our children, a good understanding of what wood species are naturally rot/pest resistant, a higher value on sustainability and end-of-life factors, and a notion in the back of our minds that maybe we’ve made too many things from plastic, especially for kids.”

Because of this, Schleicher said natural play and natural material play structures are getting a lot of attention, and he sees more cities and playground manufacturers jumping into this realm.

Regardless if your playgrounds are natural or synthetic, it is likely they have seen increased usage this year due to COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic has made more people want to be outside with their families rather than indoors. Maltz said this is something recreation centers should take into consideration when creating or redesigning their outdoor areas to meet playground trends.

“Especially during COVID-19, people want to be outside, and still be with family and friends,” said Maltz. “What best benefits community rec centers would be having plenty of picnic tables, benches and trash receptacles surrounding the play area.”

While the coronavirus may inspire more families to get outside and play, it may also cause many members to be hyperaware of how clean your facilities and amenities are. To combat this, look for routine cleaning procedures that won’t damage the equipment.

“We recommend our clients to always clean the play structure surfaces with soap and low-pressure water — like a garden hose — not high pressure, as that may damage paint and surfaces,” said Maltz. “To lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus, a normal routine for cleaning with soap and water removes germs and dirt from surfaces.”

According to Stange, the best cleaning methods for playgrounds have been heavily debated lately across the industry. However, he said many manufacturers agree with Maltz on using the classic soap-and-water combination. “My suggestion is to contact the local playground manufacturer as different paints and plastics may not like certain chemicals,” he said. “Most communities are saying soap and water and absolutely no chemicals.”

Another item to take into consideration when creating or redesigning their outdoor playgrounds is the graduated challenge level of your playground.

“If you have a composite play structure for ages five to 12, ask yourself, ‘Would a five or six-year-old be able to master every aspect of the playground on their first visit?’” said Schleicher. “If the answer is yes, then you are underestimating the value and reward of that ‘Look what I can do’ moment where a kid achieves something that was a bit too hard last time they visited.”

In addition, Schleicher explained if you have low-challenge equipment you may be inviting unintended play and even hazard. “Numerous times I’ve seen bigger kids on top of the roof of a play structure; a lack of things for their abilities is, without a doubt, the culprit,” he said. “An expanded range of graduated challenges leads to a wider range of reward for all ages.”

Overall, play areas are critical for allowing children to have fun and express themselves creatively. While playground trends have evolved, it is worth considering adding a new play area or updating a current structure. It may seem overwhelming and a lot to learn, so Maltz recommends talking to playground professionals to help.

“Never be afraid of asking questions; that is the only way of learning what is new, recommended or beneficial,” said Maltz.

Tips for Designing the Whole Space

According to Nathan Schleicher, too often the playground is left until the end of a major renovation or development, and many places forget to design the play space itself. Here are three tips for designing the entire play area:

  1. The value of investing in more mature trees — natural shade — and planting in and around the play space can’t be underestimated. Also, don’t forget the space can be playful itself. Add some rolling topography, and hug the space with berms, as opposed to fencing. Berms can also be a great opportunity for hill-scrambles and hill slides.
  2. Safety surfacing can be up to half the cost of a playground. If synthetic material appeals to you, try using a combination of materials — maybe 60% wood fiber and 40% poured in place, or turf — to keep the investment more focused on the play.
  3. Don’t forget the grown-ups; things like coffee shops or food trucks enhance the appeal and pleasure of visiting a park for the adults. Parks with these adjacent amenities are building community for all ages.

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