New Playground Trends In Kansas City Appeal To Young And Old | KCUR

New Playground Trends In Kansas City Appeal To Young And Old

Dec 6, 2016

Do you remember when playgrounds were made out of wood and metal? Falling off the monkey bars onto gravel or concrete? And do you remember that switch, when it seemed like all of it was replaced with colorful plastic?

Well, adventure playgrounds, which have unique play elements and introduce more risks, are popping up more and more around the country and in Kansas City, bringing back some of those old-school vibes for a new generation.

Places like the new Karnes Playground at Roanoke Park. Thick ropes weave together to make a dome shaped obstacle course, there's a medal slide on an AstroTurf hill and a zip line. Here adults and kids can be found playing all throughout the playground, which is a sign that the new design is working.

"The more unique we can make playgrounds, I think the better," says Erica Flad, a landscape architect for the Kansas City Parks Department.

She worked with the surrounding neighborhood to make Karnes happen.

"You can go to a lot of parks and play on the same kind of slide and swings, but if you go to this one that has the huge mound and zip line, that's pretty different and exciting, I think, for the the city," Flad says.

Most of the nearly 100 playgrounds in the city aren't adventure playgrounds. They have what are called "post and deck" structures that link together slides and climbing platforms.

That design is a playground innovation created by Jay Beckwith, also known as "the playground guru." He developed the idea in the 1980's for elementary aged children, but the concept quickly took over the industry, a fact that frustrates him to this day.  

"My intent was not to have that kind of system sort of become ubiquitous, which is what it has now become," says Beckwith.

So how did we get to this place?

"This goes back you know, nearly 100 years," says Tom Norquist, president of the International Playground Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA). 

Norquist says the first public playgrounds were pretty bare bones: sandlots, public spaces designed to keep kids off the streets. Eventually metal structures, gymnastic apparatuses and fantasy sculptures were put in the mix. But in the 1970's and 80's growing concerns over playground injuries changed everything.

"It was a time of kind of cleaning up and making our playgrounds safer and more compliant," says Norquist. 

IPEMA and the ASTM, an international standards organization came up with, well, standards, and a certification program for playgrounds. The Americans with Disabilities Act was also passed in 1990, which called for more inclusive designs.

Norquist says it was a time when old playgrounds were updated. Concrete was replaced with shock absorbent surfaces, and they took out hazardous structures. But now, Norquist says, playground design is in a renaissance.

"Most of the companies have spent over a decade over being focused on safety and inclusion or accessibility," says Norquist. "So now I see designers for firms really stepping up and creating play experiences that might be a little edgy if you will."

Both Norquist and Beckwith says new playground designs are geared more towards multi-generational play. Designers are playing with music, sound and virtual reality. And there is a trend of incorporating more natural elements, like wood and water, and exploring different ways we can move our bodies and tell stories

George Armstrom tries out the zip-line at the new Karnes playground in Roanoke Park.
Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3

So what does this mean for Kansas City?

Flad says we're already seeing some of these trends here, but these new innovative designs can be more expensive and call for a lot more community involvement.

"Neighborhood input is really important when it comes to the direction and like their vision," she says.

Flad says about 90 percent of the projects they work on are financed through the Public Improvements Advisory Committee (PIAC), which calls on residents and neighborhoods to submit ideas for improvements they'd like to see in their community.  

So when it comes to what type of playground your neighborhood could have in the future — whether it's a plastic post and deck structure, ropes course or something that tells a story — well it's really up to you.

Suzanne Hogan is a reporter, producer and announcer for KCUR 89.3 and co-host of the podcast Question Quest.

This story is part of KCUR's series called 30/30 Vision, in which we examine Kansas City's past to reimagine its future.