Play Value Part 2: A Canary Test

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We’re back to our discussion about spray parks and play value! We’re going to start where we left off and dive deeper into the issue of spray park design, specifically surface design.

In Lisa J Lewis’s 2005 paper “Role of Splash Parks in Outdoor Public Recreation,” Lewis ends  with her overall recommendations about how splash pads in general should be designed. She anchors this conclusion with the following:

A specific issue which the industry appears to recognize but is addressing in a variety of ways is the issue of surfacing. [...] Some members of industry are striving to find a maintainable and cost effective manner to provide a cushioned surface in the water environment of a splash park. Others are promoting a colorful surface which provides for gripping but no cushion. Still others are painting concrete to provide visual interest but with no consideration for the way children actually play. One sales representative stated that, ‘Children don’t need to be running, anyway.’ Another said that, ‘Children will play with anything, so it doesn’t matter what you give them.’ At the risk of offending some who were very generous in helping with this project, these attitudes do not promote providing for the quality, positive play experiences children need. The issue of surfacing needs to be studied by those qualified.
— (pg. 181)

Lewis’ study was presented in 2005. In 2016 we had a blog series hitting these same concerns, but from a perspective of safety. What we didn’t dig into, but Lewis notes, is that safety surfacing lets kids play how they naturally want to.

Observing How Kids Actually Play

We’re a lot of things at Life Floor: water park enthusiasts, engineers, parents, designers, and safety flooring specialists. What we aren’t is an unaffiliated organization with a statistically significant sample size, however, we still thought it necessary to conduct an observational study on how kids play on a Life Floor splash pad vs a concrete splash pad.

Globally, we know we can’t make a scientific statement from observing two splash pads in Minnesota.  There would need to be a much larger study incorporating far more kids, splash pads and types of surfacing over a longer period of time.

In the meantime, we’ll call this study conducted in the summer of 2018 an ‘Observation with Numbers’.

The Observational Study

For the purposes of this observation we broke activities down into Active Play and Static Play, Interacting With Floor and Slip And Falls.

Active Play

Running: Or jogging, skipping, dancing or otherwise moving quickly over the surface of the pad.

Jumping: Including leap-frogging, hopping up and down, or leaping over things (friends, water features, puddles, or drains)

Acrobatic: Here we have activities like summersaults, handstands, or cartwheels.

Static Play

Standing Still: Including waiting for dump buckets, hovering over a jet feature, or listening to their guardian say “five more minutes”

Sitting: Maybe filling their shoe with water, watching water go down the drain, or just taking the whole pad in.

Lying Down: Taking a rest, enjoying the day, or watching the clouds

Interacting With The Floor: This could be hoping from one part to another and/or making a game out of the floor itself, not the features. (Both splash pad floors did not have any games already incorporated into the design i.e. hopscotch or four square.)

Slip and Falls: Since kids are not always coordinated and sure-footed, we broke this up into two groups: Interrupts Play and Doesn’t Interrupt Play. If a kid took a tumble, but got up and kept going then we said it didn’t interrupt play. It did interrupt play if they needed to sit, cry, or move off the pad.

The Observational Site Splash Pads

We found our Life Floor splash pad first (we’ll call it Splash Pad LF), and for a decent comparison we looked for a concrete splash pad as similar to Splash Pad LF as possible in terms of size, features and environment. We were looking for a free, established splash pad near a playground, in a similarly trafficked area of the city. We’ll call the splash pad we located Splash Pad C.

Splash Pad C

Splash Pad C

Splash Pad LF

Splash Pad LF

So How Do You Record All This?

We went to the two parks during days with similar temperatures, at the same time, for the same duration. Every 5 minutes we write down the number of children present on the physical splash pad (not on the sidelines or on the playground) and the number of the isolated behaviors that were on display, for a total of 24 “behavioral slices.”

For example, at 11:30 at Splash Pad LF there were 7 kids present, 5 of them were running and 2 of them were standing still.

Meanwhile at 11:30 at Splash Pad C there were 5 kids present. 1 of them was running and 4 of them were standing still.

To get a bigger picture, we also took notes about other behaviors we noticed as they came up. For example, since both pads were next to playgrounds, we noticed that kids would run between the splash pad and playground frequently, which resulted in a fluctuating number of kids on the splash pad from slice to slice.

Splash Pad C

Splash Pad C

Splash Pad LF

Splash Pad LF

The Data

Splash Pad LF: We noticed 72 behavioral incidences in our 2 hours there, with an average of 2.84 kids on the splash pad throughout the observation period. We noticed 35 Active Play incidences, and 37 Static Play Incidences. We noticed 3 instances of kids Interacting With The Floor (in this case, jumping from triangle to triangle) We noticed 0 Slip and Fall incidences.

Percentages: 49% Active Play, 51% Static Play.

Notes: Kids on Splash Pad LF typically moved through or across the splash pad. Some Splash Pad LF adults sat and played with the kids on the surface (though we didn’t record what they were doing). This was the only pad where a child lay down directly on the surface for a bit (seemingly just to relax under the water and the sun).

Splash Pad C: We observed 106 different behaviors during the two hours we were there, with an average of 4.4 kids on the splash pad through the observation period. We noticed 26 Active Play incidences, 80 Static Play incidences, and 0 instances of kids Interacting With The Floor. We noticed 2 Slip and Fall incidences, 1 that Interrupted Play and 1 that Didn’t Interrupt Play.

Percentages: 25% Active Play, 75% Static Play

Notes: Kids moved around the perimeter of the splash pad as opposed to cutting through it. Splash Pad C parents did not join children on the pad to play (though we did not record what they were doing). Splash Pad C had 7 bathing-suit ready kids sitting on the sidelines who never entered the pad.

Conclusions

Active Play

For the most part we don’t believe there is a wrong way to play (safety limitations notwithstanding. We, for example, wouldn’t suggest running around on a pool deck where there is a drowning risk) and every child should have the chance to engage with water the way their curious minds want to. If a child wants to sit and observe how water moves and flows, then that’s a great way to experience a splash pad!

However, as we noted in the first part of this series, as kids across the country are living more sedentary lives, when they do get the chance to spring forward and be active, then those opportunities should be geared to allowing them to engage in as much of the active play behaviors as they want: safely and without injury.

Since splash pads are flat, have no drowning risk, and are designed to be engaged with, their optimum play value comes when kids have a chance to be active.

From this small observation we noted a higher percentage of kids playing actively on Splash Pad LF than Splash Pad C. We also had children who simply did not play at all on Splash Pad C, despite being clothed and ready for it. Additionally Splash Pad C had the only slip and fall incidents, one of which resulted in the child removing himself from the splash pad and going to his guardian.

So, like any canary test, this shows us that there is something worth studying here. Ultimately we would love to conduct more observational studies around the country, but for now, wanted to share this small test for the purpose of understanding that surfacing does seem to really matter. Safety surfacing, as seen here, facilitates play by its nature. Specifically it allows kids (and their guardians) to be more comfortable and confident in the safety of the area.

Join us in a few weeks to read about how surfacing can encourage play by design.