Why does a city or county put in a public playground? Why would you set aside valuable land and invest your dollars in this equipment, especially when costs are rising and funding dollars are harder than ever to come by? What defines the success of your project?
In this case, we are not discussing the direct benefits of play, but the purpose behind the public play space. You are offering a benefit to the residents, and visitors, of the region; however, how do you tell whether you gave them great benefit? Having play equipment available for possible use is fine, but if the equipment is often empty or barely utilized, then residents and taxpayers may doubt that it was a good use of resources.
True play value – good return for the capital investment, as well as giving the best benefit for those with access to the space – starts with play attraction. Simply put: once you open the new area, the goal is for children to come and play in it. You want to draw children to leave behind their social networking, gaming consoles, and television stations to get out and explore the play opportunities you are presenting to them. To do this, what is offered in the play space must be enticing to them. They will be drawn to something different or puzzling, something with action & movement, and something that already has a crowd of happy kids having fun on it.
Once you have drawn the children to your playground, the next key to true play value is play retention. We all know the stereotypical attention span, usually lasting about 5 minutes before whining declarations of boredom. With more studies highlighting the need for healthy children to achieve at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day, there is need for play equipment and play space designs that can keep children engaged for long enough to achieve that. Can you imagine a situation where the kids are so rapt by the exhilarating play experience that they lose track of time and don’t want to leave? If parents must drag their children home for dinner, then you know you have value in your play choices.
The final key to true play value is play return. Kids can be fickle, and if something was not fun the first time, then they definitely won’t go near it again. Success in choosing the elements for a play space will then be measured in the number of children who declare “I want to go to that park every day!” This will require dynamic equipment that creates an active play environment; equipment that gives opportunities for free form & imaginative play; inclusive equipment that draws many children of many ages and abilities to interact together in the same fun at the same time.
The term ‘play value’ has been used in the parks and recreation industry for a long while now. Historically, people have often tried to measure it in terms of counting numbers of connected elements, or other mathematical formulas and ratios. Perhaps it is time to re-define what we call play value. After all, didn’t we make these playgrounds for the kids?!