I stood at the top of a near vertical drop, swaying in the brisk April breeze. I had conquered the climb, below me my peers stood in awe at the prowess and fearlessness that had been evident in mastering this feat of bravery. OK, so maybe the imagination of an eight year old version of me is getting a bit out of hand as I sit at my desk reminiscing the “good old days”…

But I do remember the feeling of meeting a good challenge head on, and some of the best challenges were in playgrounds or places that we made our playgrounds, trees, building sites, caves, creek beds, rock faces and even steep roadways. I grew up in a culture and environment that didn’t put the constraints on children that are common in our over-protective society today. Most of the kids in my neighborhood were free to play in “the bush” or “down the road” or “over at Billy’s house”, as long as they were home in time for dinner, or before it got dark, whichever came first, depending on the season.

Playgrounds are a passion of mine. I love designing them, I love playing on them, and I love seeing my kids having fun on them.


Long Forgotten Playgrounds

One of my favorite pieces of play equipment is the swing set. I love the feeling of a well designed swing; where the chains are just the right length to get a heart stopping pause at the top of the arc, before you swoop back through to earth again. Not long ago it was still possible to find a park with a merry-go-round, a set of real see-saws, a long set of monkey-bars and a death defying slippery-dip slide, but with the advent of litigious communities and cautious cities, these simple, study and fun pieces of play equipment began disappearing from the parks scattered around our nation. There was no outcry, no conspiracy theories, after all the Atari and Sega game consoles were getting more of a workout than the playgrounds, parents were happy, and their children were safe inside.

A recent article in the Boston Globe quotes Susan Solomon, an architectural historian and author of American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space

Back to the playground – The Boston Globe

“The see-saw today,” points out Solomon, “is pretty much a horizontal bar that hardly moves in either direction. It just kind of jiggles a little bit.” School playgrounds in Broward County, in south Florida, now post “No Running” signs.

Recent Trends in Playground Design

Most playgrounds around the country have been installed by developers or cities as new development occurs, or as older parks get vandalized or marked for equipment replacement or upgrading. Its pretty safe to say that most parks have a 5-6 foot high slide, some sort of ladder or small climbing structure, again no more than six feet high, maybe a swing set, typically with chains not more than 9-10 feet long all surrounded by pea gravel bounded by treated timber as if to say, you can only play within these boundaries.

This playground sucks

If my four year old gets bored after a few minutes of playing at some of these parks, is an eight year old going to play on the equipment? Now there are exceptions to the rule, but generally these aren’t built without significant cost, or an ongoing commitment to facilitate play or provide materials.

Children are smarter than we give them credit for, if they are forced to play in uninspiring play areas, they will find ways to make it more dangerous, hence the signs on indoor play areas “do not climb on the outside of tunnel” and the netting preventing children from accessing forbidden more challenging terrain.

Kids want the challenge, kids need the challenge of heights and speed and balancing in a playground.

Check out my ideas for Innovative Play Space Designs in my next blog post.

Let us know what you think of these ideas, and share your experiences good and bad in playgrounds.

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Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

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