Thursday, October 10, 2013

How to Design a Playground: Parent Edition

It was a beautiful fall day today, so I brought my kids to a local playground. This particular playground has a large, flat, paved area with giant rocks to climb on (it’s also a spray park during the summer) with a circle of benches around it; a row of covered picnic tables; a sandbox; a large climbing structure with a slide, a swinging bridge, and monkey bars; a smaller climbing structure with a smaller slide and swinging bridge; a swing set with traditional-style swings; and a swing set with bucket-style swings for little ones. The individual components are terrific, but the layout of the park as a whole is…well, let’s just say it was obviously not designed by a parent. At least, not a parent of multiple children.

The biggest limiting factor that should be accounted for in playground design is the bucket swings. Anyone who has ever met a small child understands that once a child is in a bucket swing, the adult accompanying that child will be unable to move more than 5 steps away from the swing for more than 23 seconds without instigating a screaming fit that will cause every parent within a 50-foot radius to stare in judgment (in the supervising adult’s mind, anyway). That single limitation effects the placement of every other item in the entire playground.

The two swing sets at this particular playground are at the opposite ends from each other, which means that I had to continually race back and forth across the entire width of the playground at top speed to keep pushing both my children to an acceptable height, much like a circus performer racing to keep multiple plates spinning at once. 

In a parent-designed playground, the swings for larger children would be placed directly across from the smaller swings. Ideally, the two swing sets should be placed such that an average height adult can simultaneously push two children, one on each swing set, without needing to take more than 2 or 3 steps in either direction. This would eliminate much sibling squabbling over a parent’s attention, as well as preventing parental exhaustion from cutting the children’s playground time short. And, if the parent in question is as uncoordinated as I am, it would also minimize the chances of a liability lawsuit due to a parental faceplant while racing between swing sets.

Another design change based on a parent’s being anchored to the small swing set is that there should be a clear line of sight from the swings to every place in the playground that a pre-schooler could conceivably go, particularly all points of ingress and egress. In the park we were at today, the smaller play structure was right in front of the smaller swings, which seemed like a good idea until I was trying to push my daughter on the swings while at the same time trying to make sure that my son wasn’t running other children over with his bike on the far side of the park (or pedalling out of the park and down the street). So I found myself pushing the swing a few times, then running over to the walkway where I could see past the play structure, spending 30-40 seconds locating my son and confirming there were no wounded children in his wake, and then racing back before my daughter’s swing slowed to an unacceptable height. Lather, rinse, repeat. By the time my kids were tired enough to want to go home, I was downright exhausted. If I were designing that playground, the small play structure would either be so short that the average adult could see over it or I’d have added a wide tunnel running from the swings toward the rocks at adult eye level that would allow parents to keep an eye on their older kids and a hand on their younger kids at the same time. 

And finally, I would add more benches throughout the playground. Because even when you don’t have to run quite so far and fast to keep your children happy and supervised, being on a playground with your kids is exhausting!

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