Let Your Imagination Run Wild

February 1, 2015, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Ed Brown Playground at MacLearie Park in Belmar, New Jersey, ties local history and personalities into its design, which is now enjoyed by hundreds of children. CREDIT: Cre8PlayThese days, it seems we’re always searching for ways to get kids outside and excited about play. Parents and caregivers do their part, coming up with creative outings and tantalizing activities. Park and recreation professionals help to sweeten the pot, with enticing programming around crafts, sports, games, cooking, art and more. But the pièce de résistance of any facility is an amazing playground. Nothing sets a child’s imagination alight like a playspace that feels as though it were designed with their greatest interests in mind. 

Choosing a Theme

Dozens of manufacturers offer a plethora of choices when it comes to themed playgrounds, so approaching the marketplace with a plan in mind is sure to smooth the process. Conducting a public survey is a good place to start, in order to gauge what the community wants in a new playground. “Community input is the most important thing when planning a themed playground,” says Scott Roschi, director of design at Landscape Structures, a playground design firm based in Delano, Minnesota. “The community helps uncover many great ideas that lead to themed playground designs that are more meaningful to the community because of a tie to the local culture or history.”

There are practical concerns, too, says Greg Harrison, chief marketing officer at Playworld Systems. “When thinking through a themed playground, there are many important factors to consider, including the conceptual vision for the new play space and determining how to maintain high levels of play value without sacrificing the overall look and feel of the themed structure. It’s also critical to know the total budget for the project, which goes beyond purchasing equipment to also include surfacing.”

Harrison recommends agencies ask:

  • Will the themed playground blend with the surrounding area?
  • Are there existing visual elements that can be incorporated to enhance the theme onsite?
  • Is the theme one that children will still enjoy a decade from now?

Safety is a major component — “Above all, it’s the biggest issue we consider,” says Lisa-Marie Klooster, CPSI, who serves as director of marketing at custom environment manufacturers Themed Concepts. “Each of our products is designed and modeled to scale to ensure that we are creating a safe, yet engaging play product for our intended age group…Our constant focus in our studio brainstorming sessions is to feel confident with each product we design that we are creating an experience for children that provides them with a reasonable challenge, whether balancing on a rotted log, climbing a mountain peak or going exploring through a ground-level rattlesnake den.”

What’s Hot Now?

So, what are communities currently demanding in their custom playspaces? “As far as the theme of the product is concerned, it’s all about nature, nature, nature,” Klooster says. “Although our artists are hanging on to a collection of product designs that range from funky art deco to high fantasy, nature is definitely the driving theme right now, and there is no end in sight.”

Roschi concurs, “Nature-inspired playgrounds have been a significant theme as many communities really want to help connect kids to the natural world around them. Incorporating natural materials and creating a connection to the local animals and plants are really important aspects in this movement, and [Landscape Structures] takes special care of adding as much realism as we can to these environments.”

Incorporating a sense of place is also a marked trend, as community members rally for playground themes that reflect the history and natural elements of the surrounding landscape. “Creating a local-themed playground is fun because, as a designer, we have the opportunity to learn so much about a specific community — the local history, architecture or culture,” Roschi continues. “Then we take that inspiration and turn it into an amazing play environment that is reminiscent of the community and, most importantly, a place where play and imagination can really take hold for many years.”

Harrison says incorporating cues from the local environment also helps to facilitate a bond between the playground and the families who frequent it. “One of the added benefits of themed playgrounds is that they often inspire true ownership/sponsorship from the local community, particularly when they depict real places, people or things,” he says.

Play Smart

Anne-Marie Spencer, vice president of marketing and communications at PlayCore, reminds agencies to look for high levels of craftsmanship and integrity in design when purchasing equipment for a themed playground. Such amenities can represent a major investment — getting the biggest bang for the buck is important, but not at the expense of durability, utility and quality. 

“Ask your playground designers to show you examples of their work,” she says. “There are many ways to do theming, from the utilization of themed panels to fully sculpted glass fiber substrates. The key to success is the talent of the designers and artists…If you are doing themed panels, ask the supplier about their routing process, how finely can they detail the pieces, what sort of dimensional work can they do? With the fiberglass substrates, it’s all about the finish work, as even well-sculpted pieces can be painted poorly and miss the overall effect that the community is hoping for.”

One way to ensure you get exactly what you want is to opt for a custom job, says Klooster. “Having your theming company design a custom site to fit your budget and space not only can save you money in the design process, but allows the customer to add details into a project that are specific to their area or local history.” Going the custom route also helps increase buy-in from the community — agencies can choose to involve the public in brainstorming a theme, selecting certain equipment and taking part in a fun unveiling event, where the one-of-a-kind playground is revealed amid a backdrop of special programming, food, music, etc.

Poignant Playgrounds

Perhaps the biggest payoff of a great themed playground is the memories it creates for the children and families who spend time there, coupled with a sense of community pride in a truly thoughtful playspace. Cre8Play, working with its partners to develop Ed Brown Playground at MacLearie Park in Belmar, New Jersey, took inspiration from Brown himself. Originally the owner of nearby Monmouth Executive Airport, Brown felt a special gratitude to the town that believed in his vision enough to fund construction of the facility’s original runway, way back in 1940. In his will, Brown provided funding for the community park that now bears his name, as well as an awesome airplane theme. Brown’s family, with Cre8Play, Marturano Recreation (MRC) and Belmar residents, contributed to the design process and equipment selection. Ed Brown Playground now boasts a big plane in which children can play, complete with a cockpit that makes sound, control tower, “lost luggage climber” and yet more features. The entire playground is ADA-compliant and a huge hit with the community. “It’s projects like this that have meaning behind them that make my job so rewarding,” says MRC’s Don Cooper. “I was able to get creative here and make a one-of-a-kind-playground.”

Likewise, in Minnehaha Regional Park’s Wabun Picnic Area in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Landscape Structures made deep connections with the community while constructing the auto-themed playground. “We integrated a great historic theme with a nod to the auto tourist camp that once stood on the spot where the new playground is today,” Roschi says. “What makes it truly special for the community is that not only is it an amazing themed play environment, but it is also the first inclusive playground in the Minneapolis park system…The community has embraced the play space and it has become a real destination for this part of south Minneapolis.”

With solid planning and inspiration, any agency can boost its visibility and viability in the community with the addition of a themed playground. Best of all, Spencer says, industry suppliers are more than happy to help. “As playground designers and suppliers, we owe it to the communities we serve to create play spaces where any child can play, in a manner that feels fun and comfortable to them, no matter their age and ability,” she says.

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