Playground Development Extremes

August 1, 2014, Department, by Steve Casey, RLA, ASLA

Perhaps the most attractive piece of park equipment for young visitors, the Jupiter XXL climbing structure features intertwined climbing nets, a slide and suspension bridge.For more than 40 years, South Lea McKeighan Park was the home to youth baseball in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. When baseball leagues were relocated, the 11-acre South Lea McKeighan Park was relegated to a practice field site and needed attention and updating. The park’s highly visible location at the corner of two busy streets gave vision to a special type of park redevelopment.

Park Design Development

Following four years of neighborhood feedback, planning and design workshops, charettes and consultant refinements, Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation (LSPR) staff focused on a master plan with the assistance of Bowman, Bowman and Novick Architects (BBN) of Kansas City, Missouri. Careful attention was given to the older neighboring residential area to the south and west of the park as well as a high school to the north and commercial and retail to the east. The park needed to have a welcoming feel from the street while also conveying the sense of an oasis in a bustling, high-traffic urban area. One of the overriding concepts in the redevelopment of the park was environmental sustainability through the use of innovative stormwater management practices, use of native plant materials and low-impact development achieved through minimal grading and infrastructure improvements.

Another important consideration was to acknowledge the park’s recent history with baseball in Lee’s Summit, as well as the historical significance of the site in the early settlement of the city prior to the Civil War. To achieve this, a small commemorative area was erected on a baseball field’s old home plate along with interpretive boards explaining the parkland’s history.

A decision was made early on in the planning phase that South Lea McKeighan Park would return to a more traditional neighborhood park context with walking trails, a park shelter, playground, restrooms and open play areas. But because of its highly visible location, the park also needed to be much more dynamic and appealing. After several months of planning, the Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation Board approved $1.9 million to completely renovate the park with special attention given to developing a unique, one-of-a-kind adventure playground. The playground needed to give the park an identity and make it a destination for both residents and visitors to Lee’s Summit.

Playground Vision and Design

While BBN Architects assisted LSPR in most of the design development and construction documents, LSPR planning staff took the lead with a different approach to the development of the playground site in an effort to be more cost-efficient and work more directly with playground manufacturers and product representatives. Once the location of the playground site was chosen, LSPR posed a selection process/design competition, asking, “What can we do for this budget?” The term “adventure” playground was loosely defined by park staff in an effort to open up a free flow of ideas. Staff provided the companies a site plan of the playground area indicating access points and surrounding park activity nodes, a budget of approximately $600,000, and essential programming criteria, such as ADA compliance, swing sets and ground-level tot play equipment.

Playground Equipment Selection

Lee’s Summit park staff received several proposals that met the project criteria and spent more than two months vetting submittals and soliciting feedback from children and neighbors of the park. They even held an open house to gain feedback at a “Friends of the Park” social event. After careful evaluation and public comments, what staff took away was a desire from the community to trend away from the popular “nature play” approach or a traditional “post and deck” model and examine more modern alternatives that challenged both the physical and problemsolving capabilities of all age groups. The contemporary, “edgy” equipment offered these challenges, while the site plan for the areas outside of the use zones addressed more organic elements that allow children to interact with nature. A meandering dry stream bed through the playground and use of plant materials in landscape areas also gave the playground an oasis-in-the-park feel.

The centerpiece of the Lea McKeighan playground is the Jupiter XXL by Berliner Seilfabrik, a 30-foot-high metal-framed pyramid with intertwined climbing nets. The customized tower pyramid offers children an opportunity to climb safely to the peak of the structure from ground level and then navigate down via a curved slide attachment, climb back down or link onto a suspension bridge attached to a smaller net climbing structure. Other Berliner play pieces that complement the large structure include a 70-foot “Speedway” zip line, a VIP Swing, Cloud 9 swings, climbing rocks and other various ground-level play equipment. The 15,000-square-foot play area has become the talk of the town and the region.


The free play concept at Lea McKeighan Park is designed to tap into children’s intuitive development and sense of adventure. It also challenges a child’s motor skills, including strength, agility and hand-eye coordination. Climbing equipment taps into a child’s creative level of problemsolving to go from point A to point B with no specified path. The free play concept also encourages repeat users. Park patrons enjoy a playground more when every trip presents a different challenge or approach to problemsolving.

What is the proper balance between safety and adventure in playground design? Climbing playgrounds are inherently risky. Accidents do happen, but standards for fall protection surfacing keeps these risks low. Children, particularly those in the upper tier of the age 5–12 group, are drawn to an element of risk in playground equipment. The European approach to playground design has always pushed the envelope due in large part to less stringent safety standards. While risk of litigation and other factors influence playground equipment design, some European playground manufacturers, like Berliner, are tapping into a more balanced approach. The visual appearance of the modern European equipment is much more intimidating than the actual risk. Due to the transparent nature of the materials, parents can have clear visual supervision of their children at all times and address “stranger danger” issues.

Is a playground just for kids? The playground at South Lea McKeighan Park is an interesting study in the interaction of parents with their children at the playground. Park staff members have observed that parents take a more active role. Rather than sit back passively on a park bench, parents monitor their children more closely on the equipment during an initial visit. Once the initial parental trepidation has subsided, parents find themselves interacting with the children and in some cases joining them on the equipment.

Staff monitor and observe how the new South Lea McKeighan playground is being used with an eye toward the benefits of innovative methods of play while also looking for areas to improve upon with the next new playground project in Lee’s Summit.

Steve Casey, RLA, ASLA, is Assistant Superintendent of Park Planning and Development at Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation.