Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Playground for the Ages: Playground Design Is Becoming More Targeted to Appeal to Specific Age Groups

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

A Playground for the Ages: Playground Design Is Becoming More Targeted to Appeal to Specific Age Groups

Article excerpt

Long after we've outgrown them, playgrounds resonate with us. They're where we met our first buddies, bullies and rivals. And they're where, scrambling between the cold metal swings, the peeling wooden slides, the unyielding "monkey bars" and the late, lamented seesaw, we learned how to climb, test our balance, cooperate and stand up for ourselves. Colorless, limited and, by today's standards, dangerous, these small, concrete areas offered a world of life lessons ... and endless hours of fun.

Some things never change, even though they may morph and become almost unrecognizable. Safety concerns, a more litigious society and a greater understanding of how children benefit from play have all conspired to create playgrounds that bear almost no physical resemblance to those of our youth. But modern playgrounds pay homage to the lure and demands of swings, slides, bars and seesaws, taking them as a literal jumping off point into a world populated with "structures," "play events," "transitions," "water elements," "components" and "surfacing."

Today's ideal, well-designed modern playground is not only more accessible, it takes into account different age groups. It may incorporate, for example, an elevated sand area for toddlers; loop ladders, crawl tunnels, S-curve bridges and ring pulls for the pre school set; and firepoles, 8-foot climbers and tire swings for older kids.

How Kids Play

This keener perception of age-appropriateness has become the key factor driving today's playground design, now that safety and accessibility are must-haves. The 1981 release of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)'s "Handbook for Public Play ground Safety" introduced specific guidelines to meet the sizes, weights and relative strengths of children in two age groups: age 2 to 5 years old and those age 5 to 12.

"Most children ages two to five are smaller, weaker, less coordinated and have a higher center of gravity than 5-to 12-year-olds," sums up the National Program for Playground Safety on its Web site www.playgroundsafety.org. "Thus, they need smaller steps and crawl spaces ... [and] playground equipment for [them] should be designed lower to the ground. Older children should be encouraged to use overhead and horizontal bars because they have greater arm development and strength."

But that's just the beginning, say planners. "Age-appropriate equipment is a safety requisite, but even if it wasn't, it would still be important to take into consideration the different developmental needs of those age groups," says Sam LaPera, a capital program officer for Philadelphia, Penn.'s Parks and Recreation Department.

"Playground planners really need to look at the psychology behind the child," agrees Todd Holmes, a landscape architect for the city of Pasadena, Calif. "Research shows that younger children have shorter attention spans and are very interested in imaginative play," he continues. "Older ones are much more about physicality, competition and risk." Equipment that encourages solo play through interactive elements is important for toddlers and pre schoolers, while older kids prefer equipment that fosters cooperation and group play, a precedent to the team sports that they will eventually move on to.

Safety Vs. Innovation

Many playgrounds don't have the space to devote to truly distinct play areas, so those delineations can blur. "We generally like to take a conservative approach so we can protect the two-to-fives, while trying to keep everything challenging and entertaining for the older ones," says Jonna Hauser of the Everett, Wash., park system. If the youngest kids can't find anything to play on, planners have to assume that they'll be drawn to the bigger structures, which must be planned in accordance. "Typically a small kid can get up but then not get down," says Hauser. "So we have to add, say, smaller steps for them alongside the rope ladder we've provided for the bigger kids. …

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