In Tokyo and other cities in Japan, you can coast down enormous slides—made of thousands of rollers, some more than 250 (gentle-sloped) feet long. In downtown Sydney, one section of Darling Quarter park boasts a rambling pump station, where you can channel the flow of water through gutters or splash your friends with a water jet. And in Germany, playground zip lines are common, designed to sit on (rather than dangle from) as you zoom down a hill.
When it comes to creating playgrounds for the future, U.S. planners are looking abroad for inspiration, says David Flanigan, director of operations for program management for KaBOOM!, a D.C.-based nonprofit devoted to creating more and better playgrounds.
“I’ve been seeing a focus on creating nontraditional post-and-platform structures—structures that you look at and say, ‘Wow, I don’t even necessarily know how to play on it,’ ” Flanigan notes. “They have arches and nets and ropes and different kinds of climbers that really don’t resemble the kind of structures you remember seeing [when you were young].”
Lincoln Park Zoo’s children’s zoo area has one such 21st-century jungle gym, dubbed the Treetop Canopy Climbing Adventure. Designed by architect-cum-artist Tom Luckey, this maze has 36 curvy wooden platforms encased by about 30,000 feet of vinyl-coated steel cable.
While some people automatically think these kinds of structures are awesome, Flanigan says others express concern—an understandable reaction. “When you look at something that’s nontraditional, the first question might be ‘Is it safe?’ ” But because these tall climbers have nets and other safety precautions, it’s impossible to fall all the way to the ground, Flanigan says.
“Surfaces are a big thing,” says architectural design consultant Michelle Sakayan, who specializes in playgrounds and has an eponymous firm in Wicker Park. Wood chips, the de rigueur surface of the past generation, might have been an improvement over the concrete or blacktop that preceded it, but the chips can get in kids’ eyes, and they tend to scatter, sometimes exposing bone-breaking concrete beneath. “You need a fall zone for a playground,” Sakayan explains, “and [shredded] recycled rubber tires or poured rubber allow for a spongey, much softer fall.” The zoo’s Treetop Canopy just reopened in March after being closed all winter, in part so the carpeted floor could be replaced with recycled rubber.
KaBOOM! has used rubber surfacing too, including the environmentally friendly, locally developed SMARTE system, which partly uses encased shredded tires to cover the area, making it wheelchair friendly.
Sakayan discovered perhaps the ultimate example of eco-conscious design in South Africa, where she worked as a liaison to the local government architect for the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. In one rural township’s school playground, the kids’ kinetic energy—the ultimate renewable resource!—converts into electricity. “I saw one of those ‘whirl-around,’ platforms where kids hang onto the bars and twirl around,” she explains. “It was generating power for the school.”
Although that innovation doesn’t seem to have crossed the ocean yet, there is a growing trend of incorporating natural elements into playgrounds, from edible gardens to rainwater-collection systems. That goes hand-in-hand with another movement: to create playgrounds that serve multiple generations. “To me, what makes a playground interesting are the things surrounding it, where people sit when they watch their kids play,” Sakayan says.
But playgrounds aren’t just incorporating gardens and attractive seating, they’re including interactive elements for older siblings, parents and even grandparents. “You might have a walking path that goes all the way around the playground area, and it has various stations with fitness equipment for older teens or adults,” says Flanigan. This way, parents can watch the playground while also doing something for themselves. (Outdoor men’s and women’s gymnasiums placed in sight of playgrounds were common in the first Chicago parks designed at the turn of the 20th century. See “Chicago playgrounds: a history,” right.) Locally, the Downers Grove Park District installed a fitness station at McCollum Park earlier this year.
Still, some of the cooler features found abroad, like zip lines, will have to overcome a big hurdle—a fear of litigation—before they’re embraced here. “We are safety-driven with a lot of our designs because we have to be,” Sakayan says. “You have to think of every possible scenario of how someone could get hurt.”
Still, she can dream about harnessing kids’ energy to power the planet: “Now my husband tells my kids, if they want to watch TV, they should ride a bike to generate power for as long as they want to watch.”