Thematic Playground Equipment

In the Novelty Era of playground development, designers attempted to promote dramatic play by designing play structures that were supposed to appeal to the imagination. Designers of play equipment built play equipment shaped like space ships, submarines, covered wagons and animals. Since the 1970’s, modular equipment with decks, links, and new materials has replaced novelty equipment as the preferred equipment on playgrounds (Frost, 1992). Modular equipment tends to be abstract, because designers follow the early childhood principle of “open endedness.” As Talbot and Frost (1990) wrote, “Forms which are overdefined tend to dictate meaning, and this is the antithesis of the magical state of mind we are seeking” (221). Mason (1982) suggests that play environments need to be flexible and adaptable: “A cubby which can be a house one day and a fort the next day is far better than one which looks very much like a castle and wouldn’t inspire the children to treat it as anything but a castle” (17). The emphasis on abstract, open-ended designs has resulted in manufactured play equipment which is abstract, colorful, and which encourages functional physical activities like climbing and sliding over dramatic play activities.

Recently manufacturers have begun to return to the designs of the Novelty Era. The possibilities of modern plastic molding allow for shapes which were impossible to manufacture previously. Some of the possibilities currently being manufactured include tree shaped, dinosaur shaped, and pirate ship designs. Unlike their metallic predecessors from the Novelty Era, these materials can be made to more closely approximate the objects which they are meant to represent.

The importance of realism and abstractness is important for children’s play in that play experiences with open-ended abstract materials and closed-ended realistic materials affect how children think. Research on the importance of realistic and non-realistic materials on children is not conclusive. Exposure to open-ended materials results in ideational fluency as children are more able to reason divergently and have more varied ideas for interactions with materials (Fisher, 1992). On the other hand, Trawick-Smith (1993) found that children’s use of realistic and non-realistic play objects for dramatic play changes as children mature. He found that more realistic props were important for 2- and 3-year-olds, while 4-year-olds liked a mixture of realistic and non-realistic play objects and that 5 and 6 year olds preferred non-realistic play props. Ihn (1999), found that realistic outdoor play equipment like pirate ships and play houses were enhanced by loose parts, but that the shape of the play equipment was not sufficient alone to enhance dramatic play on the playground. Finally Hartle (1996), found that a playground with minimal materials encouraged more dramatic play than conditions where materials like dolls and blocks were added to the playground.

The implication for playground designers of these studies is that realistic playground equipment does not necessarily detract from children’s play, especially for toddlers and young preschoolers. On the other hand the realistic nature of the material may not have much of an effect on older children’s development of dramatic play. A middle ground between total abstraction and absolute realism may be a safe alternative. Playgrounds which have both abstract and realistic elements may appeal to a range of users and thus extend the possibilities for dramatic play on the playground.

Arrangement of Space

Spatial arrangement is fundamental to children’s play environments. Frederick Froebel, the father of kindergarten, believed that outdoor play and gardening was very important for children’s development (Brosterman, 1997). At the turn of the 19th century, Maria Montessori designed child-sized tables and chairs for the comfort of the children (1964). Moore (1987), in describing the importance of environment for cognitive development wrote, “The environment involves physical components that have measurable impacts on cognitive development” (63).

The influence of spatial arrangement in the play environment is especially important in that different spatial arrangements change how children behave and think. Findings from studies of indoor environments have shown that modified open designs promote positive cognitive behaviors. Modified open-plan classrooms have partial dividers, like shelves, that define spaces; however, they also allow children to move freely from space to space. The children in modified open design classrooms stayed on task longer, explored more and spent less time withdrawn than children in completely open or closed plan classrooms (Moore, 1987).

Some general principles for spatial arrangement have greatly influenced playground design. Integrated and linked equipment is much more desirable than separated and isolated play features (Friedberg & Berkeley, 1970; Mason, 1982). Playgrounds which encourage small semi-private spaces also encourage dramatic play. Ihn (1999) found that children often preferred to play underneath a pirate ship play structure as children chose to use the area “under the ship deck area as a private gathering, resting, and even dramatic play area” (4) more often than the top of the play structure.

The arrangement of space to include semi-private spaces for children’s play encourages them to play more persistently, and lengthens the time of children’s engagement in play tasks. In addition, the inclusion of encapsulated areas to serve as stimulus shelters where children can recover from active play are also important in reducing stress on children (Frost, Wortham & Reifel, 2001).

Designers need to consider children’s safety during dramatic play when it occurs under decks and platforms. The safety design of the underside of equipment is as important as the safety design on the top of the decks. Play equipment manufacturers and installers should insure that there are no hazards associated with the underside of decks and platforms where children engage in dramatic play.

Designers need to consider that children from different cultural backgrounds will have different senses of what play spaces mean, so that a playground designed for children in an inner city neighborhood of Philadelphia may need to be differently arranged than one for children on the Rio Grande border between Texas and Mexico.