Tom Norquist: A Pioneer for Play

December 1, 2014, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Tom NorquistClose your eyes and picture yourself situated on a playground swing. Gently pumping your legs back and forth, you begin to move, enjoying the breeze, hearing the creak of the chain and feeling the sense of freedom that comes from sailing through the air. That experience is owed to the stimulation of the vestibular system — the tiny canals and organs located in the inner ear. They’re responsible for our sense of balance and of our body in space. They’re also responsible for Tom Norquist’s profound love of play, which he attributes to his fondness for swinging. “I love to swing because of the way it affects my inner ear,” the senior vice president of product development and design at PlayCore’s GameTime says. “Experts…explain that during swinging, the three semicircular canals in the inner ear are responding to movement and acceleration in the horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes. For me, it just feels really good, especially when I close my eyes.”

But it wasn’t just the act of swinging that motivated Norquist to make a career out of play. It was the connection between the act of play and a child’s healthy development that fomented the “aha” moment he needed. “The same experts have explained that [vestibular] stimulation is directly related to our sense of balance,” Norquist continues. “This reminds me of my first play research experience back in 1984 when Ken Kirn, the president of [outdoor equipment manufacturer] Columbia Cascade [Company], explained that young children having difficulty with balancing may also have difficulty with reading. Ken introduced me to the world of play research and…sparked my lifelong love for play.”

Advocating Play for All

Norquist’s introduction to the world of playgrounds and site amenities took place at Columbia Cascade. Fresh from earning bachelors’ degrees in finance/law and marketing at Portland State University, Norquist spent the subsequent decade learning all he could about the industry. 

In 1995, he was a founding board member of the International Play Equipment Manufacturer’s Association (IPEMA), and later served as president and treasurer before settling into his current role as secretary. He’s also a long-term, active representative for the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), the international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems and services, including those related to playgrounds.

During the past 30 years, Norquist’s name has appeared on a number of prestigious boards and organizations related to play and equal access, including the National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS), the United States Access Board’s Recreation Access Advisory Committee, the International Playground Contractor’s Association (NPCAI), the U.S. Play Coalition and the National Institute for Play (NIFP). He’s solidified his reputation in the industry as a skilled marketer, product innovator, motivational speaker, award-winning playground designer and children’s advocate for safe, creative, inclusive and fun play. 

Safety First

Norquist has seen a lot of new playground products and amenities come down the pike, but he cites the now-common use of safety surfacing at playgrounds as the most critical innovation by far in modern play. Indeed, the most common playground injuries result from falls (40 percent of the estimated 250,000 injuries reported annually), and organizations like the Consumer Products Safety Commission and ASTM have been working since the early 1980s to establish guidelines for impact absorption of playground surfaces.

Beyond physical safety, Norquist also makes a point to mention the cognitive impact of play and how that relates to healthy development in children. “When we study play in the field of child development, we learn about the powerful physical, social, cognitive and emotional skills obtained through a regime of free, unobstructed play,” he says. Children who are exposed to regular sessions of free play tend to test higher on IQ tests and are better learners, “but one of the most important findings is how bad play deprivation, the lack of outdoor free play, can be on an individual,” Norquist continues. He cites studies by Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play, which have shown the negative effects play-deprived animals show in a laboratory setting. Animals that are restricted from free play are less able to avoid aggression or socialize comfortably. “In other words, play deprivation can result in severe mental illness or even much worse,” Norquist warns. 

Making Free Play Possible

In light of such research and considering Norquist’s personal attachment to the joy of play, he’s also devoted a large chunk of his professional career to developing play systems and equipment that challenge and excite children. Back in the 1980s, Norquist worked on Columbia Cascades’ custom PipeLine and TimberForm playgrounds. While at GameTime in the 1990s, he helped design the BigFoot slide, featuring three different sliding experiences. He also worked with the GameTime design team to help pioneer lifelike rock climbing experiences at playgrounds in the MegaRock and WallCano systems and, most recently, a system called Ionix that merges science with light and shadow play.

Inclusive playgrounds are also on Norquist’s radar as he works to develop new ways for children of all abilities to play together and get parents involved in their children’s play experiences. Currently, he’s working with Dr. Brown to develop a swing designed to facilitate greater bonding between parents and children. 

Even with more than 30 years in the business of play, it seems we’ve but scratched the surface of Norquist’s unique, innovative talent and passion for the industry. “Watch out,” he says, “we have a bunch of really cool new inventions in the works and soon coming to a playground near you.”

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine.