Play Value Part 3: Where Does Design Fit In?

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Safety surfacing, by nature, allows kids to play on splash pads the way they want to play. But there’s more to the conversation than just facilitating play. How can safety surfacing elevate experiences by encouraging and inviting new kinds of play opportunities? How can safety surfaces by design create a more dynamic play space?

Over the past 8 years we’ve worked closely with leading architects and engineers in aquatic design, splash pad manufacturers, world renowned brands, and cities all over the world to design safer and active play spaces. We’ve developed guiding principles for our design process to make splash pads as successful as possible, specifically in the matter of safety and play.

Safety (and Fun!) By Design

Our Studio department often discusses how everything we use throughout our life goes through multiple design phases. A common example of this is the difference between a simple, metal folding chair and an elaborate, plush armchair. While they have the same ultimate purpose, they went through design phases - they were simply designed to achieve different goals with different guiding principles in mind.

To understand what is involved in creating a successful splash pad, take playground techniques for example. In their paper “Design for Play: A guide to creating successful play spaces” (x) Shackell, Butler, Doyle, and Ball discuss creating unique and attractive play spaces: “Its premise is that, like any other part of the public realm that is intended to be well used, well loved and well maintained, play space needs a coherent concept and a clear design” (pg. 6).

Crafting a successful play space requires the design to be focused on long-term maintenance, overall play value, and a unique place in the heart of the community that can be transformed. The latter eliminates the possibility of “one size fits all” or “cookie-cutter” location, but also demands a level of integration and customization that lends to making the space fun and maintainable.

To help make this feasible, Shackell, Butler, Doyle and Ball offer a set of design principles to create a successful play space. These play locations:

■ are ‘bespoke’

■ are well located

■ make use of natural elements

■ provide a wide range of play experiences

■ are accessible to both disabled and non-disabled children

■ meet community needs

■ allow children of different ages to play together

■ build in opportunities to experience risk and challenge

■ are sustainable and appropriately maintained

■ allow for change and evolution.

These inspirational guidelines were designed to make communities, designers, and manufacturers alike consider play value as not only a series of parts, but also an ecosystem. Ecosystems flourish when all parts are balanced and each facet is considered harmonious with the rest which are compiled of the features, the functions, the environment, and safety itself.

Safety surfacing is often a vital part of a play value ecosystem. It adds deep richness and dimensions that can support splash features, reflect the environment, and customize the play space for the community.

Designing With Play Value

In the spirit of Shackell, Butler, Doyle, and Ball’s guidelines, we recommend how to best design a floor that integrates it into a splash pad’s story while creating a new recreation space for kids to enjoy. These features can entice and encourage exploratory as well as free play.

1. Surfacing needs to be noticeable.

If a child doesn’t have anything to interact with, then by definition the surfacing won’t encourage change in behavior.  Larger patterns have their place, especially in applications with multiple levels, but on a single plane area it is important that the flooring has noticeable calls to action. Just like a set of rings invites kids to run through them or water guns invite kids to point and spray, colors and shapes on the floor encourage flow through the space.

Real World Examples: When a child walks down the sidewalk they may play a game of avoiding the cracks. In a waiting room a child may try to avoid certain colored carpet tiles as they move back and forth.

What This Looks Like In Action: Similar types of games can be recreated by having a visibly repeating or alternating pattern in the surfacing of a splash pad so children can create their own games inside that framework. Surfaces can have numbered die cuts, inlaid shapes or different colors, and even well-known games like a hopscotch course located between sprayers. The basis is that a child can see the pattern and decide how they want to interact with it.

2. Build harmony between the surfacing and the features.

Features and flooring should complement one another. Not just in theme and aesthetics, but also in how each feature is meant to be used. Flooring can provide flow and add greater dimension to how features are used.

Real World Examples: Kids using building blocks on a city play rug will drive cars on the roads to their newly built buildings (or may just use natural lines in a typical rug). Placing masking tape on the carpet to make an interactive treasure map can help pass a rainy day inside.

What This Looks Like In Action: Some designers accomplish this by creating differently colored “play zones” on the ground to signal to parents and kids what ability level each zone is designed for (e.g. having a lilypad pond with a dark blue signaling where the more elaborate features are). This is a great way to group both features and ability groups.

Consider that features are meant to be enjoyed in different ways. Spray guns can shoot towards inlaid targets, swooping paths can lead kids through spray features, and different hot spots under the dump buckets can show children where to race when the tipping bucket bell rings.

3. Create harmony between play space and the environment.

A splash pad should benefit its surroundings, not replace them. A well harmonized splash pad will be unique to the space it’s situated in. If it’s in a natural setting, then more natural elements should be utilized as possible within the limits of maintenance regarding water. If the splash pad is located at a city center or plaza, then it should stand out from the surroundings for safety reasons, but also still be utilized during offseason. A play space should embody something unique about where it’s built to create ownership in the community, memorable experiences for kids, and clear senses of identity for the space.

Real World Examples: In terms of playing with water, science tables and children’s museums are popular attractions where kids get to learn and experiment with how water behaves in a small scale environment. Historically, theme parks have focused on creating integrated themed experiences that emphasize both how the ride feels, what story it tells, and how its surroundings appear. Kids will recall clear visual elements more easily than park names. For example, if a child says, “I want to go see the dinosaur,” this is equivalent to visiting the park with the dinosaur in the lake.

What This Looks Like in Action: Creating the sort of target pathways and games in the previous examples do not need to be one-size fits all. Die cuts can be created in the shape of local waterfowl footsteps. Local roadmaps can be recreated on the surface to guide kids between features. It can even be as simple as basing the color palette off a nearby playground or environment.

4. Design doesn’t need to be complicated to be meaningful.

Designing intelligently also involves considering what the community needs. A clear example of this is when a city may choose several smaller parks with simple splash pads over one larger and more complex park. These smaller parks won’t draw as much attention as the singular big park, but their accessibility will mean more to kids who get to enjoy them.

Similarly, the design of a single splash pad doesn’t need to be elaborate or overly complex in order for children to enjoy it. Simple and versatile often wins as opposed to complicated and intricate designs.

Real World Examples: Building blocks are one of the most simple toys, yet they attract kids of all ages due to their numerous applications and appeal to various ability levels. One of the most enduring and popular features on playgrounds are the monkey bars, which allows kids to test their abilities and enjoy a sense of risk.

What This Looks Like In Action: A surfacing design doesn’t need to be elaborate in order to add play value. The important thing is how a child sees it. A child might enjoy a simple repeating pattern they can create rules around or a inlaid track they can race on rather than a more intensive or complex design that draws the eye but doesn’t invite interaction.

Taking Design into the Future

With a unique play feature designed to fit and enhance its surroundings, communities are enabled to feel more ownership of their splash pad, and kids have new ways to play with each splash pad they visit. We believe these guidelines are a great way to ensure surfacing creates new dimension to playing beyond the surface level.

Splash Pads are a new trend for many cities and facilities across the country. What the future holds depends on the groundwork we lay now. Opportunities for interactions between flooring, features, and location are unique and specific to each community. As a result, Life Floor wants to help you design and create unique, beautiful, and safer aquatic spaces for your visitors of all ages to enjoy.