The best play spaces exercise the body -- and the mind.

By Kara Corridan
October 05, 2005
The Smarter Playground


Playgrounds can be wonderful recreational arenas for kids. They offer chances for fun, muscle and motor development, creativity, and social growth. "Unfortunately, too many spaces in the United States rely on flat surfaces and generic equipment and ignore the natural topography and vegetation that spark children's creativity," says Roger Hart, Ph.D., codirector of the Children's Environments Research Group at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "They imply that you don't need nature to have fun, you just need manufactured equipment." This is in direct contrast to playgrounds in countries like England and Germany, which often incorporate animals, gardens, and running water and are often staffed, says Dr. Hart, who has consulted on the design of dozens of play spaces, including the Playground for All Children in Queens, NY, among the first designed for children with special needs.

There's a new trend in playgrounds, however, with interactive areas that evoke the natural landscape to combine play and learning. "We're slowly starting to see more spaces that are enriching for children in numerous ways," says Robin Moore, playground designer and professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. The one pictured here, Chase Palm Park* in Santa Barbara, CA, is an example of this shift in thinking.

* Moore Iacofano Goltsman, Inc. (, in association with George Girvin Associates, collaborated to design this award-winning park. Working with local artists, MIG developed the design concept for the park that reflected the city and the site's history, including a shipwreck that once occurred off the coast.

Other Smart Playgrounds

Here are some other smart playgrounds located in the United States:

The Smarter Playground

Early Childhood Center, Skaneateles, NY

A 5,000-square-foot space created especially for infants and toddlers, this playground offers children a plethora of elements to climb, touch, smell, hear, and even taste. Children can toddle along a path enclosed by tall, edible plants such as mint and lavender or make music by banging on a large covered drum to re-create thunder. When children need more active play, they can drive their tricycles through a large tunnel, dig in the sand, or slide down a small hill.

The Smarter Playground

Shiver Me Timbers Millennium Park, Lake Charles, LA

Children from all over southwest Louisiana submitted their drawings and ideas for this park. A design firm translated the best of those ideas, such as a tree house and a three-story-high slide, into a 15,000-square-foot park. Kids can learn about local history while playing on a replica of a P-40 Warhawk plane that soldiers in 1941 learned to fly at the Lake Charles Army Flying School or by meandering through a recreation of Fort Atkison, a settlement that protected American territory from the Spaniards in 1829.

The Smarter Playground

Kids Together Park, Cary, NC

This two-acre park allows everyone with special needs -- from children with poor vision to elderly grandparents who may have mobility problems -- to enjoy being outdoors. Divided into zones for different age levels and activities, children can wander through landscaped garden paths with a variety of plant textures, smells, shapes, and colors. Tiered tables for playing with sand, tunnels, slides and a sculpture of a dragon built into the side of a hill.

Fort Liberty Playland, Liberty Township, OH

Those with a flair for the dramatic find an outlet in this growing Southern Ohio community. A stage area with seating allows for puppet shows, skits, or other impromptu performances. Since the design was based on local children's drawings, it contains some classic kid-friendly play structures: a train, a ship, a fort and a castle. The 13,000-square-foot playground is divided into two areas based on age. The under-5 area features shady spots for quiet play and a tot fort. Older children help develop gross motor skills on balance beams and swings. Picnic tables encourage family gatherings and has become a social destination for area residents.

The Smarter Playground

Stafford Park, Redwood City, CA

This three-acre park incorporates areas that adults can enjoy such as a rose arbor made of native redwood and a shady promenade with a clear view of the play area. Younger children can get wet (and wild) while activating three water columns. Swings, slides, and overhand bars keep older children active while younger kids can play in a sand and water area complete with a fountain. Families can relax at picnic tables and benches under the shade of redwood and oak trees.

Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the August 2001 issue of Child magazine.



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