Thursday, October 21, 2010

Nature As Playground (and School)

I obviously focus on formal play structures at this site, not for any philosophical reasons, really, other than that's what I'm interested in and that's primarily what the playgrounds in my neck of the woods (or deserts) have to offer.

But that doesn't mean I'm against much more informal play areas such as, well, other necks of the woods.  ("Necks of the wood?"  Hm.)  Some of my favorite play memories of my own youth aren't playground-related, they're play-in-the-woods-related.  (Though some are, too.)

It's not much a surprise to me that Vashon Island, Washington, whose Ober Park playground's secret weapon is an open grassy area surrounded by trees, is also home to a "nature preschool," the Cedarsong Nature School.  The mission of the school is "to provide opportunities for direct experience with nature."  In other words, it's to play outside.  Says the description for the preschool program, "Your child is invited to join us in running through the forest, discovering and decorating hide-outs, making dreamcatchers and musical instruments, creating magic wands and magic potions, learning about the plants, creating a unique nature journal, playing make believe, making up forest songs and dances, and telling stories around a campfire."

While they might be able to handle make-believe, somehow I don't think the Kompan or Rainbow systems would handle a campfire very well.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review: Thorpe Park (Flagstaff, Arizona)

For those of us unable to afford (or not wanting to spend the time driving to) a summer trip to San Diego, Flagstaff is the next best thing for Valley residents.  At an elevation of well over a mile, it's usually a good 25 to 30 degrees cooler than the Phoenix area, and it's only a 2-hour drive from central Phoenix.  At the intersection of Interstates 40 and 17, and as the gateway to the Grand Canyon (not to mention the old Route 66 running right through it), it also gets a fair amount of out-of-state travelers' traffic.

The best playground in town is Thorpe Park.  It's just west of downtown (which is about a 5-minute drive north of I-40) and has a wide variety of play structures for a wide variety of ages.  There's a sizeable older-kids bulbous play structure, with a smaller, slightly-less bulbous play structure for the younger kids a couple hundred feet away (both in sand or wood chips, I forget which).  There are also separate bouncy/springy metal animal sit-upons, as well as a much older metal jungle gym in the shape of a fire truck.  So it's got a fair amount of play structures, not to mention a decent amount of grassy area.

If there's any distinguishing feature of the park, it's a bank of about 10 swings that sits on the western edge of the play area.  The play area gently slopes down to the eastern edge where the play structures are, so that when you're swinging high, it gives you a bit of a feeling of swinging over downtown Flagstaff.  It's a great swing area.

It's been a couple years since we've gone to the playground, so I don't have any decent pictures, but you can view some pictures here.  In addition to the play structures and swings, it's surrounded by pines on the western side and there are some places to hike nearby if your family is looking for some more back-to-nature play.

This is a nice little park, and if your kids need some playground time, either because Phoenix is too darn hot or because they've been in the car for 6 hours, Thorpe Park will be a nice diversion.


What: Thorpe Park Playground
Where: 191 N. Thorpe Rd. / Flagstaff, AZ (map)
Parking: Parking lot and street parking.  Not sure about public transportation.
Amenities: Restrooms, some shade from the pine trees, but not as shady as you might like from intense high-altitude sun.  Downtown Flagstaff is maybe a half-mile to a mile away.
Bottom Line: Best playground in Flagstaff.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

David Rockwell and Imagination Playground in the New York Times

There's more than enough coverage on Imagination Playground, designed David Rockwell's re-imagining of adventure playgrounds for the 21st century.  But I figured I'd add to the chorus.

Rockwell penned (ink-ed?) an "Op-Chart" for The New York Times this past weekend.  The chart, rendered in reassuring architect-style (I'm sure there's a technical term for it, but I'm not an architect), is essentially a different rendering of the "standard" imagination playground in a box.  While the concept of the chart is a little cheesy -- it looks nothing like a typical architectural rendering, because that's the point -- it is effective and gets Rockwell's point across:
In creating the Imagination Playground in Lower Manhattan — a playground with lots of loose parts for children to create their own play spaces — we realized that many of the elements with the greatest value to children were inexpensive and portable.
At 10 grand (or probably less a set), I wonder how long it is before wealthy parents start buying them for their kids.  When you think about it, if you're willing to put in a pool at $25,000, what's another $8,000 for some play blocks?  (Not my league, though.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Irvine's Adventure Playground Needs a Bulldozer

OK, that's a misleading headline.  Somebody might read that and think I'm really proposing the demolition of Irvine, CA's Adventure Playground.  The playground looks more like a vacant lot than a fancy new playground with brightly colored equipment, but that's the point, really.  With mud, fort-like structures, movable parts, rope bridges, and the like, it sounds very much like a playground for creativity, an Imagination Playground on the cheap (not to mention more than 60 years ahead of its time, since the concept's been floating around since the 1940s).

Now there are moves afoot to tear down the playground, which has led supporters in the community to create their own Defend Adventure Playground website.  (I particularly appreciate the seige mentality implied by the use of the verb "defend.")

I'm not going to get into who's right and who's wrong here -- I've seen more than enough of these situations to know that it's very gray, not black and white, and even if you disagree, it's often a matter of perspective.  (I'll also note that it's not exactly a new issue.)

But I do wish that they had one of these near us.  There are just 3 (and since AP's been closed for a couple summers, just 2) of these in the US, as opposed to a thousand or so in Europe.  Wouldn't it be cool to see your kids tromp through the mud, construct a fort (repeatedly), and cross a rope bridge?  Maybe even -- we can dream, right? -- pretend to operate a bulldozer?

(Hat tip: KaBOOM!)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Review: Kachina Park (Phoenix, AZ)

Kachina Park is a little neighborhood park in a part of Phoenix I like to call "Arkadia with a 'K'." That's because it's adjacent to but not formally part of the (comparatively) swanky Arcadia neighborhood, even though people -- and realtors -- who do live there describe themselves as living in Arcadia.  (I say that with affection because I used to live in a couple different parts of "Arkadia with a 'K'.")

The park itself has some room for running, a meandering path, and a fair number of reasonably mature trees.  It also has a playground, one that Miss Mary Mack remembered for something called "the wheel."


No, "the wheel" was not some sort of medieval torture device.  It was just that wheel thingy above, maybe 2 1/2 feet in diameter and about 6 feet off the ground.  If a kid leans off the adjacent platform, they can grab a hold and make almost one full rotation.  Miss Mary Mack had lots of fun on it... for maybe a couple minutes, then moved on.

Luckily, there were a couple other kids there on what proved to be a record-setting day heat-wise in Phoenix (111 degrees, woo!) so that Miss Mary Mack could play with (and show off to) other kids.  I suspect the park has more kids on days when the heat isn't quite so bad.  Also luckily, the main (big-kid) playground structure had a shade structure which somewhat helped.  (As a parent, I eventually excused myself to the shade of one of the trees lining the perimeter of the play area.)  There's nothing particular noteworthy about the play area itself -- it has the typical big-kid/small-kid play structure dichotomy with 2 toddler and 2 preschool swings.  There's sand, but part of the big-kid structure is wheelchair-accessible via that slightly springy surface stuff.  I wouldn't describe the park as having a surplus of shade and shaded-seating, but compared to a lot of other Phoenix-area parks, it does just fine.

There's no reason to visit this park if you're more than 15 minutes away because you almost certainly have a playground that provides a similar experience closer to you.  Still, it might be enough to make your kids smile.


What: Kachina Park Playground
Where: 42nd St. & E. Campbell Ave. / Phoenix, AZ 85018 (?) (map)
Parking: Street parking (but not a problem).  Bus serves 44th St. and probably (occasionally) Campbell Ave. itself.
Amenities: No restrooms, some shade from the trees, ramadas. Ground zero for the LGO folks (La Grande Orange, Postino) is a quarter-mile away.  That's pretty close for a Phoenix parks amenity.
Bottom Line: Nice, but for locals only.  (And perhaps those waiting for a seat at the LGO places.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Richard Scarry's Playground

I've enjoyed dipping into Richard Scarry books as a parent.  More so than possibly any author, I think Scarry's work was more diffused into American kids' memories of a certain time and age.  This book is my wife's from when she was a child, but I had a copy as well.

What's interesting to me as I scan what Scarry chose to include in his "At the Playground" set of pages above is that fixed playground equipment isn't the primary focus.  Sure we see classics like seesaws, slides, swings, merry-go-rounds, jungle gyms, and sandboxes, but just 15 of the 36 animals on the page are using those features.  I would hazard a guess to say that the ratio for the best playgrounds is somewhat similar.  If the kids are just using the fixed features, I tend to think that the kids will move on to playgrounds when they (and their caregivers) find something new.

Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever (Golden Bestsellers Series) [Amazon Associates link]

Friday, September 17, 2010

Songs for Playgrounds

Here's a list I originally posted at Zooglobble, my family music website.  It's a list of kids music songs that relate to playgrounds, some quite clearly, some more tenuously...

IMG_3543.jpgI know that with Labor Day coming up and schools back in session, many areas of the country may see a decrease their use of playgrounds, but in the desert climates of Arizona, Labor Day means that the first month of school is in the books and it's possible to use playgrounds after 9:30 in the morning. So playground usage actually goes up 'round here.

In honor of this fact, and celebrating playgrounds generally, here's a list of playground and play-inspired songs. Or songs from play-inspired albums. Or songs from albums with "playground" in the name (excluding Putumayo Kids).

Humungous Tree - Barenaked Ladies (Snack Time!)
Multiplication Treehouse - Duplex (Ablum)
Jungle Gym - Jack Johnson Feat. G. Love (Sing-A-Longs & Lullabies For The Film Curious George)
Sign My Cast - Justin Roberts (Jungle Gym)
Hopping And Sliding - Music Together (Bells)
Water Balloon - The Okee Dokee Brothers (Take It Outside)
My Trampoline - Peter Himmelman (My Trampoline)
How Fast Can You Run? - The Quiet Two (Make Some Noise)
Playground - Ralph Covert (The Amazing Adventures Of Kid Astro)
Treehouse Orchestra - Ralph Covert (The Amazing Adventures Of Kid Astro)
The Great Outdoors - Ralph's World (All Around Ralph's World)
Swingset - Ralph's World (Green Gorilla, Monster & Me)
Ice Pack - Recess Monkey (Field Trip)
The Sandbox Song - Recess Monkey (Tabby Road)
Playground - Rocknoceros (Pink!)
Playground!!! - Roy Handy & the Moonshot ((I'm Gonna Be) Your Best Friend)
Little Sally Walker - Suni Paz (Songs For The Playground)
Playground - The Terrible Twos (Jerzy The Giant)
Ooh La! Ooh La! - They Might Be Giants (Here Come the 123s!)
The Bare Necessities - Tony Bennett (The Playground)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Day of Play... or Something Like That

All I ask, when I hear about a day for something, is that people agree on what that day is and what it should be called.  KaBOOM! calls it 2010 Play Day, but is sort of vague on when it is (it would appear to be this weekend through next weekend, Sept, 25th).  It's basically a day (held in conjunction with National Public Lands Day) designed to encourage people to play outside and maybe help spruce up a playground or park.

Nickelodeon and its sibling channels and websites, on the other hand, have a similiar in concept (but apparently unrelated) day called the Worldwide Day of Play, which is scheduled for Sept. 25th.  On that Saturday, the channel will, in PR terms, "empower kids to get up and get active when its TV channels and websites go off the air and offline."  (From noon 'til 3 PM, screens will go dark, with a message encouraging folks to go outside and play.)

I get the purpose of the days, although the idea that Nick would be promoting turning off the TV set and computer makes about as much sense to me as REI telling people to stay at home and watch Two and a Half Men.  And I'm not going to make the argument that "every day should be a day of play," because that's not the point here -- they want a single day to raise visibility.

The problem is that it's probably still not visible enough.  National Public Lands Day is a (relatively) big deal 'round these parts, but there doesn't appear to be a single Play Day event in the Phoenix area.  Maybe it's more visible elsewhere, and if it is, good on them.  But there's room for improvement, no doubt.

As for me, I think I'm going to a playground on Saturday.  And it has nothing to do with this.  Perhaps I'll ask if others are aware what day it is...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: Lincoln Park Playground (West Seattle, WA)

You know, I don't really remember much about the climbing structures at the southern end of West Seattle's Lincoln Park.  There were a couple, I think, one for the big kids, one for the small.  They weren't new or old, flashy or rundown.  They were just... there.  Really, they're fine, and I'm sure for the single-digit-aged residents of West Seattle, it's a playground that gets lots of use.  And the park itself is lovely, with a seawall providing the bikers and joggers and walkers lovely westward views of Puget Sound and lots of tall trees -- it seems to be the closest Seattle gets to Vancouver's Stanley Park.

What I want to talk about is the zip line.

I'm used to zip lines that are basically metal handles in a grooved metal track that's about 6-10 feet long (and maybe 6 feet off the ground).  Kids hang on, and if you're old enough you generate enough momentum when you jump to make it to the other end of the zip line.  Kids seem to like them enough, but as a parent it requires a lot of attention for the little ones who need to be pushed (that could be done by other kids) or want to do it even though they don't have the hanging arm strength.

It's possible that there are other zip lines like Lincoln Park's (right next to the playground), but I've never seen 'em.  The line itself is maybe 25 feet off the ground, and runs maybe 50 feet in length.  Suspended from the line is a rope swing whose seat is maybe 3 feet off the ground as you're zipping down the line.  You get on the platform (top picture) and the downward slope of the line gets you going in a fast (but not unreasonably so) manner down to the other end, where a big tire at the zip line puts a stop to your movement, flipping you at a 45-to-90-degree angle to the ground and sending you back up the line a little.

We spent a good hour there at the zip line with Miss Mary Mack, Little Boy Blue, and a couple of our local friends' kids.  Miss Mary Mack loved it -- she and our friends' kids spent time rating each others' runs down the line.  I went on a few runs with Little Boy Blue, but he was also able to do it himself.  It requires kids to cooperate (because it's hard to get on the swing at the top without somebody steadying it), it has some danger (but not too much), and gives kids a sensation they don't normally get, that of flying.

I'm not sure the zip line is so awesome that I'd recommend making it a part of a Seattle visit.  But I'm not so sure that I wouldn't recommend it, either.

What: Lincoln Park Playground
Where: 8011 Fauntleroy Way SW / Seattle, WA 98136 (map)
Parking: A couple lots, one bigger, one smaller.  Look like they often get packed.  Also served by bus.
Amenities: Rustic bathrooms down the hill, a bunch of shade from the trees, ramadas.  The playground and zip line are dug in a bit, surrounded by ledges, so decent places to sit.  No services nearby (unless you count the ferry).
Bottom Line: Zip line!  Zip line!  Zip line!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Rebecca Mead on Playgrounds

This website's focus thus far has been on reviews of actual playgrounds, and not so much playground theory.  I think that someone will have a pretty good idea pretty quickly of what makes a good playground, at least in part.  (For example, shade.  Benches.  Funky stuff.)

If you're enmeshed in the world of playground design, you certainly were aware of Rebecca Mead's article in the New Yorker a couple months ago.  She spent a lot of time talking about the recently-opened Imagination Playground at Burling Slip in South Street Seaport in New York City.  The basic conceit of Imagination Playground is not fixed equipment but rather movable pieces -- to me they sound like foam blocks on steroids.  She also spends a lot of time talking about how kids use playgrounds in ways their designers never intended.

If you're not enmeshed in the world of playground design and aren't a New Yorker subscriber, it's not so interesting that I'd recommend that you track down the article (though it's certainly a pleasant read).  In lieu of reading the article, I'd recommend listening to the podcast of maybe 15 minutes or so, which you can do so here.