Creating playgrounds that change lives

Posted: December 4th, 2015 | Art on the Land, Columnists, Top Story | No Comments

By Delle Willett | Art on the Land

If kids designed playgrounds they would include things to climb, things to balance on, spaces to run, jump, skip, roll and spin, to throw and catch, hide and seek. Trails, trike tracks, forts, swings, slides, mud, water, sand, shady spots and sunny spots, and hideaways where they can feel alone but still have visual contact with other kids.

Ditto for landscape architects, who actually do design playgrounds, most often part of a public park or space.

It’s the “helicopter parents” (those who hover), the threat of lawsuits, insurance coverage, and maintenance issues that spoil all the fun.

According to Tim Smith, of Wynn-Smith Landscape Architecture and immediate past-president of the American Society of Landscape Architects, San Diego, there’s a growing concern these days about how children are growing up, how well they communicate with each other and with adults, how they solve problems, and even why bullying has grown to new levels of tearing down the spirit of kids who don’t fit in.

Waterfront Park, balancing on the Pearlwebtop

The Waterfront Park at the County Administration Center (Photo by Delle Willett)

Landscape architects are playing significant roles in creating play spaces that dramatically improve these problems and more.

“With a push to getting nature back into children’s lives, landscape architects are introducing natural play elements into playgrounds with ‘loose parts,’ allowing kids the opportunity to create their own play environment instead of the play equipment dictating how children are to play,” Smith said.

The focus on nature in a play environment has been proven to have tremendously positive effects on children, giving them a greater sense of confidence and yet more respect for each other.

“From all of my reading about this subject, it is clear to me that we, as a society, are losing our ability to communicate, to solve social problems, to be compassionate, and most importantly, how to think,” Smith continued. “I believe this is in large part because of the reduced time spent in nature and how children are playing today.”

Landscape architect Ilisa Goldman, founder of Rooted in Place Landscape Architecture and Consulting, focuses much of her practice on the design of play and learning environments, such as schools and child-development centers.

Fault Line Park winding paths, grassy mounds, West Sphere, restaurants

Fault Line Park (above) and the Waterfront Park at the County Administration Center (photo below) both press the boundaries of standard playground equipment (Photo by Delle Willett)

Her designs aim to create a sense of journey and exploration for the children who use them. Places where kids can dig, build and create are important features in her designs. By pairing water with sand or dirt play and rocks, kids are encouraged to make their own custom creations.

One of the big challenges she and other landscape architects face when they color outside the lines is insurance coverage.

Standard play equipment is typically covered by insurance and must adhere to a strict set of rules and standards, but when landscape architects branch out and include things like stumps, logs, plants, and big rocks, people don’t know how to insure this type of environment; they fear a liability lawsuit.

“Play can be risky, but that’s how children learn their balance, sharing and working together,” Goldman said. “I think taking these chances and opportunities away from these kids in order to protect them, we are actually doing a disservice.

“There’s got to be a balance when it comes to preventing kids from getting hurt. I’ve fallen off things, gotten hit with things; it’s all part of the learning experience of growing up,” she said.

Where current safety standards are meant to reduce the risk of serious or life-threatening injuries, this fear of liability causes the elimination of most risk on our playgrounds despite the evidence that risk is essential for healthy human development.

Goldman, who was on the Spurlock-Poirier design team for the new Fault Line Park, thinks a lot of play spaces look like prisons.

“At so many parks and schools there’s no landscaping around the play structures,” she said. “[The children] are placed in the middle of a wide open space surrounded by pored-in-place surfacing or sand and there’s no opportunities to take nature materials and incorporate them into play.”

Everything is based on maintenance, she laments. Cities and school districts question the use of trees: Who’s going to water and trim them and clean up under them? If volunteers are doing the work, then won’t they be taking away from union employees?

It’s interesting, Goldman said, the things that get picked apart as unsafe.

“Take out a shade tree for safety so kids don’t climb them and instead expose kids to UV radiation but making them play on hot asphalt and artificial turf,” she said.

Goldman believes that schools and municipalities really need to step up and provide better play areas. She said children have this “huge disconnect” today with symptoms ranging from added stress, child obesity rates, and attention disorders, and she feels these issues have a lot to do with the “disconnect from the natural world” — and a lack of “unstructured free play” which just isn’t available to children anymore.

Waterfront Park, swinging

(Photo by Delle Willett)

On the other hand, Goldman thinks the playground manufacturers are catching on to this need for more customized playgrounds and higher play-value; but with little funding for maintenance, natural elements such as trees and shrubs are usually eliminated from projects. Fake logs and molded rocks, however, are making appearances on many playgrounds in lieu of the real thing.

“Playground equipment manufacturers are being motivated by competition and pressure from landscape architects and other clients to develop new more creative and challenging play equipment that engages children more holistically,” said landscape architect Jeff Justus, principal, Schmidt Design Group, and project manager for Downtown’s Waterfront Park playground.

“Manufacturers are making playground equipment with more motion and textures, more natural play, and more inclusivity,” he said.

And it’s being integrated with the whole design of the space.

It takes more thought for kids to utilize this new equipment, experimenting with their body movement, testing their balance and muscle strength, helping kids understand their bodies and how they work.

Some clients aren’t willing to push the boundaries while others are willing to push the creativity of the playgrounds, two of which are located Downtown.

The Waterfront Park, located at the County Administration building Downtown along Harbor Drive, has a huge variety of activities with play structures that have never been installed in San Diego before: spinners, things to climb, balance challenges and grassy mounds, perfect spots for parents to watch their kids playing, and a huge water fountain popular with all ages. The park’s landscape architects were Schmidt Design Group, San Diego.

Sand Play at Barrio Logan Child Development Center. Photo Ilish Goldman

A girl plays with sand at Rooted in Place’s Barrio Logan Child Development Center (Photo by Delle Willett)

Another is the new Fault Line Park, at the corner of 14 Street and Island Avenue in East Village. It has individualized play areas for children 2 through 5 and 5 through 12 years, with swings, spinners, chinning bars, and climbing structures. Its creative play elements include sand, rock, and water-play areas, and it also includes trike paths and grassy mounds. The landscape architects were Spurlock-Poirier, San Diego.

Other more traditional playgrounds in the Downtown area include:

Park at the Park, an extension of Petco Park, and includes grassy mounds and shade trees, also with landscape architects Spurlock-Poirier, San Diego.

Pepper Grove Park on Park Boulevard in Balboa Park, which is a big area with grass, shade trees and picnic tables. Landscape architects were Delorenzo International, Landscape Architecture and Planning, San Diego.

Tweet Street Park in Cortez Hill is an .08-acre, linear neighborhood park with shade trees, seating and a doggy-duty area. Landscape architects were Estrada Land Planning, San Diego.

Balboa Park on Sixth Avenue of course has a big play area with grassy room to run, shade trees and picnic tables. Landscape architects are unknown to this writer.

—Delle Willett has been a marketing and public relations professional for over 30 years, with an emphasis on conservation of the environment. She can be reached at

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