Among the complaints relating to playground design and management is the fact that the play equipment industry seldom produces new or exciting variants on old ideas; the influence of the ‘compensation culture’ is also often blamed for this. This view does not bear close analysis. If there is an absence of originality in design and marketing, this is largely due to market leaders in possession of a comfortable market share and an absence of innovative entrants into the field. For new entrants it is all too easy to make a comfortable living from discreet versions of proven designs. There is, in any event, a limit on innovation in the mechanisms available, but in the materials field, the manufacturing industry has made spectacular changes in recent times. These changes are seldom evident in the design of play equipment, except to the degree that anti-vandal measures have encouraged the use of durable protective materials.
Some organizations have responded to this problem by providing separate areas equipped with ‘big boy toys’ in the form of adventure trails that would as readily serve as commando training facilities, with scaling walls and rope-assisted climbs up to and above three metres in accessible height.
More acceptable innovative designs or variations on old themes include:
• sophisticated aerial flight/runways – an acceptable variant on the traditional rope over the stream;
• the development of swing-roundabout-see-saw combinations which enliven traditional activities by providing opportunities for variation;
• pedal-driven roundabouts;
• games walls, which are a marketed version of the same walls, garage doors and fences that we kicked balls against when young;
• multi-use games areas (MUGAS) – games walls providing a mini multi-sport arena at relatively low cost.
Moving to the more esoteric end of the market, a few companies produce interactive play items which will ‘talk’ to children in playgrounds. At least one manufacturer markets large, heavy mobile figures that will take a good beating and will strike back at the unwary, as well as a giant boxing glove intended to direct and channel aggression. Finally, through the application of fluid dynamics a manufacturer has produced an all-age, all-size very safe hydro scale play item. These and other less common items are worth considering alongside more traditional equipment: the possibilities are very wide.
The physical location and orientation of any fixed play equipment are important. Slides should point north rather than south to reduce the effects of solar gain, while swings should not move in directions that add to risk or discomfort through dazzle from sunshine in spring and autumn. All items should be laid out in such a way as to discourage crowding around or between popular items. Equipment with moving parts, swings for example, and those that create uncontrolled or ‘forced’ movement such as slides, should be located on the fringes or other uncongested parts of the site so as to avoid collisions and movement clash.
Safe surfaces are an essential feature where play equipment exceeds a height of 60 cm. A full discussion of the requirements set out in the relevant British Standard and the relative merits of different impact-absorbent surfaces is set out in Hicks 2003:12. Sometimes the value of
well-maintained grass as a safe surface beneath low-level items of equipment is overlooked.