One of the first rules of being a good host is to have something for everybody. That can be a challenge at adventure parks, where the typical features or activities at height—zip lines, swinging bridges, rope ladders, etc., all involving harnesses—aren’t suitable for very young kids or, perhaps, for older folks, people with disabilities, or the less adventurous. What’s a park owner to do?
Enter an old-school concept, the playground. While the word might evoke images of swings, sandboxes, seesaws, slides, and jungle gyms, the concept can take on new elements within the context of adventure parks. Playgrounds can incorporate adventure-park features reduced to a manageable size and height for the kindergarten set. And in many cases, these same features can appeal to elderly participants, people with physical challenges, as well as older kids or adults who want to share the experience with members of the family too young to take on big-park features.
Still, the main target audience for a playground is the younger crowd, with designs typically aimed at the five- to 12-year-old age group, according to Isaac Hoff of Beanstalk Builders. If a wider audience ends up joining in the fun, all the better.
IN YOUR OWN IDIOM
Playgrounds in an adventure context can take many shapes. Keith Jacobs of Experiential Systems points out that old-school playground components needn’t be dismissed entirely, and that a modern playground could be “something as simple as a sandbox.”
Hoff talks about a “hybrid” concept—”not quite an adventure park, but more than a playground.” Many of the physical challenges presented by traditional playgrounds, such as swinging, climbing, and balancing, are the same challenges presented by contemporary variations, if in somewhat different form.
Playgrounds can also be designed to align with a park’s overall mission and, for example, “foster an appreciation for nature,” says Hoff. To that end, adventure park builders like Experiential Systems, Beanstalk, and Tree-Mendous typically incorporate natural materials in their playground designs, building natural wood structures rather than metal-bar structures, for example.
So, if your park has a gap to fill in offering something for the kindergarten crowd, how do you go about it? What to include and what to preclude?
Building codes. Start with the latter first. As far as proscriptive guidelines are concerned, there are few laws governing playgrounds, according to Jacobs. “There are some laws in some states, but these laws are specific to government-run entities, such as schools or day care centers that are government-run childcare facilities. There is little in the way of actual code for building a playground at a park for a private business. Most municipalities do not require permits for these, inspect them, or require a third-party inspection,” he says.
Jacobs does caution, however, that “different municipalities might have different rules,” a caution that applies, of course, to pretty much all things adventure park. And, as always, children ages 12 and under are owed the highest possible duty of care.
There are useful guidelines for playgrounds, though. Both ASTM and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have issued publications outlining appropriate design taboos and safety measures. ASTM standards cover several different types of playground equipment. Among the specific features the CPSC recommends avoiding are trampolines, rope swings, and trapeze bars. The CPSC also urges consideration of some fairly benign aspects of playground layout and design, such as proper shading.
While none of these safety measures comes with the power of legal enforcement, in a litigious world, they are nonetheless important guidelines to follow.
Two key safety considerations. Hoff says that the two “big things” that govern the parameters of playground design are how to mitigate the impact of falls and how to eliminate opportunities for head entrapment. ASTM standards address, in painstaking detail, everything from protective, anti-fall netting and the composition of surfaces to ladder specifications and stress tolerances for various components of a playground’s design.
These standards might primarily be aimed at playground builders, but they also apply to the maintenance a park owner or manager should perform while overseeing a playground installation.
In general, these guidelines focus more on preventing bad things from happening than describing what good elements might be included. That leaves a lot of leeway in the design of fun facilities.
BUILDING FOR PLAY
Baby steps. So then, how to plan and develop an adventure park playground? Both Jacobs and Gerhard Komenda of Tree-Mendous suggest that a modular approach to playground development might be a sensible way to go. In other words, start small, with something as simple as a low-to-the-ground balance beam, then proceed by adding components as demand or budgetary considerations dictate.
Aerial fun. Bringing at least some adventure-park-mimicking elevation into play is common to many adventure-park playgrounds, though elements should be close enough to the ground to remove the need for harnesses and belays. Eight feet off the ground would probably be the maximum height, depending on protective netting and the relative softness of the surface below, although most designs stick to lower heights.
Common features that merge the characteristics of a modern adventure park with the features of a traditional school playground include climbing walls, swings, cargo netting, balancing challenges, and slides. Komenda says that it is even possible to incorporate a zip line, as long as it’s short, has a shallow slope, and is close enough to the ground that no harness is necessary.
Educational options. Beyond fun, ancillary educational aspects can be built into the design as well. A playground can be instructive on several levels, says Komenda, teaching, among other things, social skills (especially teamwork on something like a seesaw), physics, and hydrology. As examples, he suggests that a sandbox might be equipped with acrylic devices to make pawprints in order to teach kids about animal tracks, or might incorporate an old-fashioned hand-driven water pump, to teach about hydraulics.
Variations on tradition. While the activities in modern adventure-park playgrounds may be novel, the challenges they present—as well as the skills tested—are very similar to those in an old-school, public-park playground.
Tree-Mendous, for example, has come up with something Komenda calls a “modernized seesaw,” in which a seesawing beam is attached to a 10-foot-high beam, and participants initiate the up-and-down action on rope swings suspended from the seesawing beam.
Komenda also says that a hybrid climbing wall, drawing on the age-old childhood practice of tree climbing, speaks to an intuitive awareness in kids on how to climb safely. “The monkey in them comes through,” he says.
In other words, adventure parks don’t need to completely reinvent the playground wheel; they can just present it in an enticingly altered way that’s consistent with a park’s overall theme or style.
Who’s the audience? While the target audience might be younger kids, Komenda suggests “striving for attractions that a five-year-old or a 15-year-old or even a senior might want to go on.” If older kids can be entertained and, in the process, some measure of sibling bonding results, all the better.
It is probably a good idea to include some kind of rest area within or near the playground layout. Little kids get tired, after all. An open space where kids can sit without interfering with ongoing activities, or picnic tables for snack time, make a good break spot.
There are few operational considerations with playgrounds. Generally, they require no supervision or staffing. The usual modus operandi is to abide by the traditional public playground rule: You’re on your own. Komenda says supervision is “very, very rare.” Jacobs likens the no-supervision approach to leaving public beaches open without lifeguards.
Warning signs. For many years, the principal precautionary procedure for playgrounds in public parks has been to post signage warning of potential hazards. Like the signing of a liability waiver, the posting of signage confers an acceptance of liability responsibility to kids and/or their parents as they use a playground.
As at public playgrounds, then, an adventure park operator might want to post signage, a step likely dictated as part of any risk-management plan a park might present to its insurer. But after that, participants are on their own or under the supervision of their parents. The purpose of a playground is not to provide day care services for parents. Bottom line: adding a playground shouldn’t raise concerns about a new strain on staffing.
Free play. And, as with public playgrounds, most parks make them available for no charge. Although Hoff says that “some places charge successfully,” Jacobs says that “most places include [playground use]in the entry price [for a family].” The whole purpose of installing a playground is to attract (and re-attract) families with kids in multiple age groups, and charging an additional playground fee would be a likely deterrent.
The start-up cost is obviously going to vary widely, depending on the size and complexity of the installation. But it needn’t be a budget-burner. That’s especially true for parks that follow a modular, phased approach, spreading the cost over years, as Komenda and Jacobs suggest. In that way, for little more than a fistful of dollars, yours can become a park with something for everybody.