The big business of playtime

As New Zealand cities and towns become more built up, and children more attached to their computers and video games, the need for stimulating and challenging outdoor recreation areas becomes more important. Welding together some steel bars and plonking them down on a patch of grass with a couple of swings and a see-saw is no longer acceptable.

Instead schools and councils are investing big money - up to $60 million a year estimates one play equipment supplier - to have specially designed, landscaped areas which enhance the environment they sit in.

“More intelligent design goes into playgrounds than say twenty years ago,” says Adam Stride, whose company Playco Equipment Limited has been providing play apparatus for parks and schools around the country for 30 years.  “We’ve had to change significantly how we do a playground. It used to be off the shelf or out of a catalogue but now we’re working with landscape architects and others to create more bespoke areas.”

 Photo courtesy of Playco Equipment Ltd.

Photo courtesy of Playco Equipment Ltd.

Simon Filleul, CEO of Wanganui-based Playground Centre, agrees. “The latest outdoor play equipment integrates technology and physical activity to create an exhilarating experience using augmented reality as well as lights, sounds, sequences, games and activities,” he says.

 An example of Playground Centre's work from Waterview Park in Auckland.

An example of Playground Centre's work from Waterview Park in Auckland.

Among emerging trends are “destination playgrounds” which combine adventure, “out of the box” design and a social atmosphere. “Smart communities are creating spaces for all ages and abilities to come together for healthy, active recreation,” Filleul says. “It might be adding fitness equipment or exercise stations. Or including swings, zip lines, climbing nets and slides that can accommodate or be adjusted for adult bodies.”

No longer an afterthought, inclusive play equipment or exercise stations are also becoming more innovative and engaging, with everything from electronic play panels to motorised carousels and trampolines for wheelchairs.

Activities that stimulate a child’s senses are crucial to cognitive development and creativity. Water features, outdoor musical instruments, spring and rotating equipment and play panels all help to engage them.

 Another view of Waterview park featuring equipment from Playground centre.

Another view of Waterview park featuring equipment from Playground centre.

Research shows that challenge and risk are important for children, helping them learn to navigate the world confidently, independently and safely, Filleul says.

“Kids don’t want to be wrapped in cotton wool, and increasingly, adults understand why they shouldn’t be. That means introducing age-appropriate adventure like flying foxes, wobbly bridges, giant slides and sky-high climbing nests.”

Safety is of course a priority. Ross Archer, who’s a playground inspector, says that sometimes means negotiating with landscape architects to ensure their vision is met without compromising on safety. “Our job is to keep talking with landscape architects, spend time making sure they understand the importance of safety in the design of products.”

 A Playground Equipment Ltd project in Island Bay. 

A Playground Equipment Ltd project in Island Bay.