Playground design grows up

With developers and authorities putting more focus on play areas than ever before, the time is ripe for a revolution on the playground, says Michele Howe.

playground design grows up
playground design grows up

With developers and authorities putting more focus on play areas than ever before, the time is ripe for a revolution on the playground, says Michele Howe.

Development in the UAE tends to focus on spaces for adults, be it homes, offices or leisure destinations, but beneath the radar there is a lot happening for the little people too.

Traditionally, the region hasn't been known for its exterior play spaces, with those areas that do exist being typically small areas sandwiched between buildings, makeshift play spaces rather than anything more formal.


If you look at a park done 10 years ago and compare it to one done now, you can see a big difference.

This is now starting to change, say suppliers. Although official statistics on the number of new playgrounds being built in the region are not available, it is clear that substantial investment is now being made in exterior play spaces.

More space for kids

Development is principally in three different areas: parks, schools, and residential communities.

Parks are the most obvious; when one tends to think of playgrounds, it is public parks that first come to mind as a likely location. But while the region's parks now boast some fantastic playgrounds, this wasn't always the case.

"When I started in the early 1980s, I would get a look of surprise that someone wanted to sell playground equipment," recalls Nelson D'Souza, general manager of SSK Enterprises, which distributes play brands Kompan and GameTime.

"The concept did not exist here. There were as good as no parks and what parks there were open grassy and sandy areas, and a lot of seating, that's all. That started changing in the mid-80s when the first parks were designed by professional architects with properly designed play areas."

Investment in park-based playgrounds is not just in the large number of new parks under construction in the UAE, but also in the upgrading of existing ones, with sums being made available in maintenance contracts for the provision of new playground equipment, as well as related equipment such as park benches and shading.

Most neighborhood parks now include a play area with equipment for children from three to 12 as well as a fitness area, notes Ivan Misquith of playground manufacturer Landscape Structures, which has worked on many of the park projects in the UAE.

Schools are the second area witnessing an explosion in the playground sector.

Previously, exterior play space was neglected in schools with even in primary schools play spaces very much a token effort, but now there is definitely more of a commitment from authorities to addressing play grounds within schools, says Alex Charawani, managing partner of playground equipment supplier Gebal, which has worked on school-based playgrounds with British Schools and Aldar Academies.

"There is definitely now a push to put in more play equipment, and a targeting of some areas of that play equipment to physical education," he says. "I think schools are finally taking on board that a lot of kids don't do any exercise at home and are trying to encourage kids to go out."

There is also more attention to the provision of shading materials for exterior play spaces, he adds.


Playground equipment is now becoming a part of the landscape package.

Residential developments are the third growth area for playgrounds. In comparison to parts of Europe such as Germany, whereby the amount of play space is determined in proportion to the number of blocks and number of families per block, inclusion of play spaces in residential communities in the UAE tends to be a little hit and miss, say playground equipment manufacturers.

"You'll got to some developments of maybe 500 villas and they'll have one climbing structure and a swing because they've said there will be a play area. Then you go to other developments, for example, Discovery Gardens, where there are seven or eight play areas," notes Charawani.

Adds D'Souza: "In a lot of cases, the play area is an afterthought at the last moment, pushed in some corner or some small space is found, just [for the developer] to put it in the catalogue that they do have a play area as well."

More sophistication

It is not just the number of exterior playgrounds in the region that is increasing, however, but also the sophistication of play spaces. Outdoor playgrounds are now much more impressive than they used to be with some, such as the play area in Zabeel Park, even being held up as pioneers in playground design.

The catalyst has been the design input ,with playground design now much more professional than it used to be, says Charawani.

"If you were to look at a park done 10 years ago and compare it to now, you can see a big difference. There are more specialised landscape architects here and more consultant engineers [now] whereas before a lot of the parks built 10 to 12 years ago were add-ons for a consultant who was more interested in building a road or flyover," he says.

D'Souza agrees. Playground design is now an integral part of landscape design, he states.

"Playground equipment is now becoming a part of the landscape package and [designers] want to ensure playgrounds are designed in such way they don't stand out as a small square in a corner, they want it to add to the flow of the whole landscape design," he says.

Changes include increased understanding of the dynamics of how a play area works, say suppliers, with for example zoning of areas per age group and the provision of seating space for parents.

It is not just the design, but also the equipment that has become much more sophisticated, shifting away from basic equipment to complex structures that challenge the child both physically and mentally.

"In the early 80s, it was basic equipment like seesaw and swings, and animal shaped rides. Then in the 90s, with the advent of better manufacturing processes, the total evolution took place [and there were] slides and roofs and a lot of attachments and panels in colourful plastic," says D'Souza.

"Then there was a shift in playground equipment that started emphasising benefits for smaller children in enhancing their motor skills and for bigger children in enhancing their body strength. Things were designed for specific parts of the body to help [children] coordinate different parts of the body."

Combining play equipment with physical activity is a key current trend, note manufacturers. Equipment such as Landscape Structures' Evos play system is specifically designed to build upper-body strength, and flex children's creativity.

Another trend is for computerised playground equipment. Gebal is currently working on the installation of one such system for a playground in Al Raha Gardens, Abu Dhabi.

The system works with activity linked to a quiz type program whereby children run to specific areas in response to questions. Computerised programs are likely to be a key component of future playgrounds, believes Charawani.

"I think it's definitely a way forward, it is forcing children to get outside and be active whilst at the same time be able to be linked into educational learning. A lot of companies in Europe are looking at this," he says.


Future trends

Interactive equipment

Combining play/fitness

Intergenerational equipment

Greater attention to surrounding furniture

More use of shading


Another way in which playground design is becoming more sophisticated is in greater attention to the materials that are being used with in particular more focus on selecting equipment and related playground materials to the climate.

For equipment, there has been a shift away from wood to more heat resistant materials such as plastic, while rubber or sand surfaces are recommended as the most suitable options for flooring.

Shading is now a prerequisite while lighting is often added in the larger playgrounds to reflect the fact that playgrounds in this region are often used in the evening.

Where next?

There is no doubt that playground design in the region has come a long way. As for where it is headed, that is still up for debate. Many suppliers predict that intergenerational playgrounds will be the future with playgrounds including equipment suitable for all age groups.

"[We believe] that the future playground will be intergenerational, there will be room for young kids, their parents, and their grandparents in the one open playground," predicts Danny Ankjaer, regional sales manager at Kompan.

"In many ways, we will see much more varied playgrounds in the future where interaction and responsiveness will be central." Jade Tan, marketing manager at Malaysian playground equipment supplier Park Games agrees.

"We imagine playgrounds [of the future] to be for the whole family, with something suitable for all age groups," she says.

In whatever shape or form the region's future playgrounds will be, it is clear that in the greater UAE their place is non-negotiable. Provision of decent sized and well-equipped exterior spaces for the future generation to play is a must.

Thanks to renewed focus from developers and authorities, advances in equipment manufacturing, and the arrival of more specialised designers, it appears this is now happening. Make way for the age of the playground.


Case study

"The playground at Zabeel Park was a turning point for playground design," says Nelson D'Souza, general manager at SSK Enterprises.

"It started the deckless system, hat is modern structures using no decks. Before this, there were just decks at different heights and access to decks with different attachments. The deckless system meant that the child had to climb using his arms or legs."

"We worked closely with [landscape architects] Cracknell on the design of the playground. Primarily there is an adventure area with three big slides that is like a volcano. It was totally different [to what existed at the time]."

The playground used the Galaxy system from Kompan. "That was the first time that a manufacturer got away from the conventional design of decks and ladders and slides attached to it," says D'Souza.

"The slide used is not a conventional slide and children are allowed to be innovative in their use of it. They use it as a climbing ladder or as a surf board."

The play value is not the old traditional play value; the equipment allows to leave the child to use his or her imagination, and different children use it in different ways."

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