Millennial parents who haven’t visited a playground in a decade or two are in for a surprise: The new era of playgrounds is a heck of a lot more fun than the safety-obsessed playscapes of the 1990s and 2000s.
Designers and park planners from a new generation are building kid-driven play structures that are bigger, more interactive and more accessible to people with disabilities than the splintery wood and plastic fantastic playgrounds of yore.
Features that had fallen by the wayside — like merry-go-rounds, see-saws and towering slides — are back, as designers look for ways to get kids out of the house and playing the way kids are meant to play.
“We want to see kids off their butts and on their feet,” said Laurel Raines, a principal and designer with Dig Studio, the Denver-based firm behind a sprawling $9 million playscape at Paco Sanchez Park at Colfax Avenue and Federal Boulevard. “I think good playgrounds can change peoples’ lives.”
Though much of the Paco project is still under construction, the park’s playground opened last year, topped by a 30-foot tower designed to look like a 1950s-era microphone, in honor of Paco Sanchez, a former state representative and radio station owner.
The interior of what Raines calls the Mic Tower is crammed with a complex array of climbing apparatuses, topping out with a three-story-tall spiral slide.
“People say it’s the best playground they’ve ever seen,” Raines said. “A few weeks ago, I went down the big slide myself, and coming out behind me were two boys. I told them I designed this place. One of them didn’t believe me, but the other threw his arms around my legs and said ‘thank you!’”
Throwing adults out
Kids are getting a bigger say in how playgrounds are designed, said Sean Kitners, a park planner with Foothills Parks and Recreation District, which covers unincorporated Jefferson County.
“I throw adults out of the visioning process,” Kitners said. “Second-graders through fourth-graders are great. There are safety guidelines we have to follow, but the kids aren’t bound by that in their imagination.”
One of Kitners’ crowning achievements is the brand-new playground at Clement Park at Bowles Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard, which includes built-in musical instruments, a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round, and a conveyor-belt-like roller slide that sees kids line up for rides.
The new era of playgrounds represent huge leaps in the science of play, Kitners said.
“We’re incorporating a lot of elements that provide different biomechanical stimuli,” Kitners said. “Spinning helps with balance. Monkey bars help with upper body development. Kids may not realize what they’re doing is beneficial to their growth.”
The new Clement Park playground is better in part because it’s a bit riskier, said Sara Baskin, a mom of two toddlers.
“You can fall off this one, but that’s OK,” Baskin said. “Kids learn their limits by pushing them.”
Learning how to deal
The new approach is welcome news to Lenore Skenazy, the president of the nonprofit group Let Grow and founder of the Free-Range Kids movement, which advocates for childhood independence and resilience.
“Playgrounds were getting so safe and dull that two things were happening: either kids didn’t want to come, or when they did, they created their own risks,” Skenazy said.
Skenazy recounted horror stories from around the country, like day cares that cut down trees to keep kids from climbing them, schools that got rid of swingsets, and playgrounds declared off-limits because they were built over grass, which was considered a dangerous surface.
“I think there’s a lot of recognition growing that we’ve gone too far,” Skenazy said. “We’re starting to recognize that play isn’t irrelevant. It’s a building block to learning how to deal with each other, handle risk and compromise. When kids are given the opportunity to really play without interference from adults, they learn social and emotional skills that we’re worried are being lost.”
Access for all
Park planners are also building with a greater emphasis on access for people with disabilities, said Amber Wesner, the public engagement and operations manager for the City of Lakewood.
Lakewood recently completed a new playground at Carmody Park, on Kipling Street just south of Jewell Avenue, with disability access as a central focus, Wesner said.
“Kids of all abilities can play together there,” Wesner said. “It’s really the vanguard in bigger cities to have at least one universally accessible playground. It helps reduce stigma, and it’s a great community partnership opportunity.”
It’s a trend that can’t evolve soon enough for parents like Stacy Warden of Westminster, whose son Noah, 10, has a severe case of cerebral palsy that renders him unable to use his limbs. Warden said that even as many neighborhood playgrounds retrofit existing structures to add amenities like swings for people with disabilities, many are poorly planned.
“Adapted swings are a nice touch, but many of them still lack wheelchair-accessible pathways,” Warden said.
Another problem, Warden said, is that even at parks with accessible structures, parents and children without disabilities sometimes monopolize the equipment.
“Parents turn a blind eye to us, or they’re just oblivious,” Warden said. “I would hope that with greater wheelchair access is a shift in awareness too.”
It’s only natural
Beyond traditional playgrounds, other playscape trends are evolving, said Steve White, a park planner with South Suburban Parks and Recreation District.
The district, which covers a vast swath of the south metro area, is in the process of developing a slew of “nature play” parks, which utilize natural elements like logs and boulders.
Two nature parks are already complete: Creekside Experience at Santa Fe Drive just north of Belleview Avenue, and Lee Gulch a couple miles south on Santa Fe beside Breckenridge Brewery. Others, like Progress Park at Belleview Avenue just east of Windermere Street, have seen a first round of development.
All three are built beside watercourses, and encourage kids to incorporate the riparian area into their play, White said.
“Our communities are growing and getting denser, and anytime you can get kids — or adults — out in a natural environment, the better,” White said. “It helps instill a sense of environmental stewardship, and it helps build connections to wildlife.”
Developing bigger and better playscapes will be key to addressing the ills of 21st-century life, White said.
“There’s a lot of talk about how sedentary we’re getting,” White said. “We know that has profound impacts on mental and physical health. Places like these are part of the solution.”