Playground attraction: the new generation of outdoor play areas

Playgrounds have popped up all over the country but what makes a good one?

 

Swings and roundabouts: What playground do you favour, and why? Email swayman@irishtimes.com or comment on the article below. We hope to publish a selection of your recommendations in the coming weeks.

Children swarm all over the wooden giant; some shoot down his arm – a partly covered steel slide – while others dare to clamber to the top to peep out through his “eyes”.

This zone of Dublin’s Merrion Square playground, inspired by The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde, is designated for older children. In other words, don’t say you weren’t warned if your toddler falls off. However, that’s not stopping braver little ones giving it a go. And on a recent Saturday afternoon a couple of passing teenagers, who certainly exceed the age limit, can’t resist taking a turn on the swings.

Meanwhile, two girls break off from the crowd to explore the scrub area beside the perimeter fence, finding a stick each to use in their own imaginary play.

Having opened last July, this is one of Dublin City Council’s newest playgrounds and, in keeping with current trends, the standalone metal fixtures of its previous incarnation have been replaced with natural-looking wooden structures that encourage a flow of movement. While children delight in the physicality, parents take time out on the benches, basking in autumnal sunshine. Among them is Áine Lynch from Terenure, with six-year-old Joe, and Maria, who is nearly eight.

“They just love this,” says Lynch, who is on her second visit here. Quite a connoisseur of playgrounds in the Dublin area, she says they are a source of free, guaranteed entertainment whenever there is a gap in the family’s schedule. Playgrounds they visit regularly include Harold’s Cross, Bushy Park, Rathfarnham Castle, Belgrave Square in Rathmines, Malahide Castle and Corkagh Park in Clondalkin, “but nothing really compares to the state-of the-art one in Marlay Park”, she adds.

The playground landscape of Ireland has been transformed over the past decade. A survey of local authorities by the National Children’s Office in 2003 found that there were just 168 playgrounds managed and provided by local authorities around the country.

Today there are about 1,300 playgrounds, according to Súgradh Ireland, a voluntary organisation set up in 1996 to promote better play facilities. The majority are managed by local authorities who must all now have a play policy.

Donegal was one of four counties singled out (along with Kilkenny, Offaly and Longford) in the National Play Policy 2004-2008, as having no local authority playground. Now it has 46, after an investment of more than €3 million, funded by the Peace II programme, Donegal Co Council, the National Children’s Office and the Department of the Environment, among others.

Providing a playground is about much more than having a space where children can get much-needed exercise. It should also enable them to reap other benefits of play, such as creativity, cognitive development and social skills. As a meeting point in the community, it can also help to break down social and cultural barriers.

Communities are usually involved in the planning of playgrounds by local authorities and, in some cases, may be the driving force.

Fingal Co Council’s newest playgrounds – one at St Catherine’s Park in Lucan and two in Swords – were provided through Leader backing (EU-funded rural business grants), which requires 5 per cent of the cost to be raised locally.

“It gives good local ownership,” says Aileen O’Connor, executive parks superintendent with Fingal Co Council, which has 42 playgrounds. However, there is always going to be some vandalism, she says, and the council spends about €40,000 a year on mending nonaccidental damage.

The council also has eight multi-use game areas (known as Mugas), which, when situated beside playgrounds, can mitigate vandalism because they are facilities that older children and teenagers use.

While some of the playgrounds put into housing developments in recent years are “a bit generic”, O’Connor says, in regional parks such as St Catherine’s, “you get to do something a little bit more special. You can be more creative when you have more space.” The playground here includes undulating landscape, which is far more interesting for children; a maze that encourages hide and seek, and sand and water areas that kids “absolutely love”, she adds.

There was a huge community effort behind the opening of a playground in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare, this time last year. Volunteers trained by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (known as RoSPA) are rostered for daily 9am inspections and there is ongoing fundraising to meet the annual €4,000 insurance bill.

It was built by the community development organisation Obair, on land donated by its founder, the late Dr Brendan O’Regan, a visionary who set up the world’s first duty-free shop in Shannon. O’Regan Park, which was designed by local landscaper and RTÉ SuperGarden winner Lisa McKnight, was paid for with €145,000 from Leader funding, €80,000 from Clare Co Council and €30,000 raised locally.

Obair’s community development officer, Siobhán O’Driscoll, says it is great seeing people coming into the village and, while local businesses are undoubtedly benefitting, “not everything is about spending money”.

Rose Butler regularly travels the 22km from her home in Tulla to the O’Regan Park playground with her three daughters, who are nine, six and five.

“It is absolutely beautiful; all natural and wooden.” It caters well for different age groups and she likes how it engages her children. “They play away on their own and don’t need me pushing them, or being on the other side of a see-saw. There are little sand areas with diggers, which my younger kids love.” They also go to playgrounds in Ennis, but they come second now to what’s available in Newmarket-on-Fergus.

 

So what makes a good playground? Here’s what parents, providers and play experts say:

 

 

Back to nature

“Natural” is the buzz word: lots of wooden structures, bark or woodchip underfoot, vegetation, and sand and water play areas. After all, it is about trying to replicate conditions of the days when children were allowed to roam freely in the countryside.

 

Such settings have a far higher play value than what are known as KFC (kit, fence and carpets) playgrounds, says Gerry O’Sullivan of the Children’s Playground Company.

“If you put sand in a playground, children will ignore €100,000 worth of equipment,” he says.

Based in Naas, Co Kildare, O’Sullivan has championed the “all natural” approach since he returned from Germany with his wife, Rinske Wassenaar, a designer, to set up the company in 2001. Working on 40-50 playgrounds a year, both here and in the UK, its 2014 projects include the one in Merrion Square and another in Windy Arbour, Dundrum. It has just finished refurbishment of the People’s Park playground in Dún Laoghaire and is working on five more for South Dublin Co Council.

The shift to natural playgrounds is good for children and good for the environment, agrees Christy Hanbury of the Galway-based Creative Play Solutions, whose playgrounds include an award-winning one in Fenor, Co Waterford; Malahide Castle, Co Dublin; Adare, Co Limerick; and Ballina town park in Co Mayo. “It is all about challenging the kids more.”

 

Location

A state-of the-art playground within a short walk of everybody’s home would be ideal. While that’s not possible, there should be some communal play space nearby, which is the rationale behind “pocket” playgrounds that have been incorporated into housing developments.

 

Dublin City Council is also trying to “think outside the box”, says its play development officer Debby Clarke. “You can end up with a lot of repetition and then children have no variety. They go from one playground to the next and there is no novelty because there is no difference; they have already done it all.

“Ideally what we would have is a hierarchy of playgrounds: big adventure types, with large equipment and big open space around it; then the urban playgrounds, trying to incorporate natural elements because that’s what’s missing.”

This sort of variety would encourage children to venture out of their home patch and promote better social mixing.

Providing opportunities to play is not always about fixed equipment, Clarke adds. With funding from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the council is redesigning the outdoor space around inner-city flats complexes, so it encourages more play opportunities.

Regional parks are ideal for “destination” playgrounds, providing space for activities not centred on fixed equipment, such as walking, cycling, ball play and nature trails.

There may have to be a trade-off between views and shelter, though: splendid sea or mountain vistas will be of little consolation when the wind is chilling you to the core.

 

Variety and challenge

The focus of playground design now is on how to keep children moving and how to challenge them in terms of building up their physical strength, says Keith Walker of Go Play, the Irish subsidiary of a Danish company, Komplan.

 

There’s a move away from “posts and platforms”, essentially just walkways and slides, to equipment that requires more agility and physical effort from the children, to get from A to B. However, the value of play goes far beyond physical exertion.

“In playgrounds we have tended to go for very structured equipment with limited uses,” says Carmel Brennan of Early Childhood Ireland and a lecturer in play at NUI Maynooth. Instead they need to be “open-ended and challenging. Who wants to repeat what they have already mastered? Children aren’t interested.”

While mastery is one driving force for children in their play, another is social interaction.

“The most interesting thing that happens for children in playgrounds is other children,” she explains. They need materials they can move and manipulate in the course of play, through which they develop the skills of imagination and co-operation.

“Children need to be able to make dens – that really promotes creativity – and they need to be in touch with nature,” stresses Brennan.

She recalls how a Heritage Council survey found that 40 per cent of children had never climbed a tree, and one in three had never made a daisy chain.

It’s a deficit that needs to be addressed, but that should not be left just to local authorities, she says. Parents need to ensure their children are out playing.

 

Safety

This is a top priority not only for parents but for litigation-wary providers and operators. This should be balanced against children’s developmental need for risk-tasking

 

“We have made playgrounds that are very, very safe and very boring,” says Richard Webb, a committee member of Súgradh Ireland and a retired playground inspector.

“We send our children off to do sports knowing that there is a risk of injury but we balance that against the benefit we hope children get from it.” Parents need to look at using playgrounds in a similar way rather than rushing off to sue the local authority, he suggests.

“The playgrounds here are all relatively new and of a very high standard,” he adds. And a rigorous, inspection process has been established to satisfy insurers.

As O’Connor explains, Fingal Co Council’s mobile rangers inspect all the playgrounds visually every day; they complete a written inspection report every week and, once a year, an independent inspection is carried out by RoSPA, which has two play safety inspectors based in Ireland.

“There was far too much hysteria about safety,” says Walker. “In essence, when you walk into a playground it is a far safer environment than the world outside – it has been designed with safety in mind.”

Parents also like playgrounds to be fenced – to keep children in and dogs out – and a layout that enables them to keep an eye on more than one child at a time.

 

Parental comforts

Ample free parking will encourage parents to bring their children in the first place. Comfortable benches, at the very least, are needed to encourage them to stay because it’s usually the adult who wants to go home first. A nearby source of takeaway coffee is also a definite plus.

 

Shelly, a Co Meath mother of two children aged six and three, likes to go somewhere that has picnic areas.

“It’s great if there are toilets; unfortunately we’ve found that to be rare,” she says. Local authorities shy away from such facilities that are not only expensive to provide and maintain, but are also regarded as a magnet for antisocial behaviour.

 

Seasonality

Playgrounds should be busy all year round. “Here in Early Childhood Ireland, we say there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” says Brennan. And a bonus of the shift to natural materials is that there is a lot less cold steel around to freeze little hands in winter.

 

swayman@irishtimes.com

Playground etiquette

Do adopt the philosophy of “it takes a village to raise a child” if unruly behaviour requires intervention.

Do so at your peril. In all likelihood, the more a child needs reprimanding, the less their parent will appreciate you interfering.

Don’t make a big performance of playing with your child – it impresses nobody.

Do hang back and allow children to explore and interact with other children.

Don’t let your children hog the swings.

Don’t think it’s okay to smoke just because you’re outside and the ban is voluntary. The Minister for Children, James Reilly, says future funding for playgrounds will be contingent on local authorities ensuring they are no-smoking areas.

Don’t wait to be asked to move up on a bench if another parent is standing nearby.

Do contact the local authority if you see something amiss: it takes a village to safeguard a playground.

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