When you think of a best in class community, the range and the quality of amenities offered is often what sets the community apart from others. While playgrounds may be lower on the list of desired amenities in comparison to swimming pools and tennis courts, they are at the top of the list for a great number of community members ranging from Millennials who are starting families of their own to Baby Boomers who are highly involved in the lives of their grandchildren, as well as the children who reside in the community.
Developing engaging playgrounds can be a costly endeavor, especially for large-scale communities that have a lot of playgrounds.
Case in point, I am the community manager for the Little Rocky Run Homeowners Association, which has 14 playgrounds spread throughout the community. I have learned there are many points to consider when it comes time to renovate and replace playgrounds.
When Little Rocky Run was built 35 years ago, the developer had placed a number of playgrounds throughout the community, many of which were located in areas off the beaten path and out of sight. Often, they were located in or near wooded areas, and they were constructed of green and tan materials so as to blend in with the natural wooded landscape. As the community aged, the wooded areas matured and although the trees provided plentiful shade for many playgrounds, they also kept playgrounds hidden, out of sight and out of mind. The aged and overgrown playground areas resulted in two issues: it kept residents with younger children away from the playgrounds because they were not welcoming, and they attracted older teens to hang out “out of sight” from adults.
Replacing the old playgrounds required the board of trustees (board) to grapple with a variety of questions and concerns that were raised by community residents. Since nobody uses the playgrounds, why should we replace them? Should we just take them out? Can we take them out? My kids are older now so why spend the money to replace them? They cost so much money, why not put the money to use somewhere else within the community? Ultimately, the board realized while their children were now older they would soon have grandchildren to explore the playgrounds. There were also new families moving into the community with young children who would come to enjoy the playgrounds just as their children did and grandchildren do. The playgrounds were indeed a vital part of the community. This was able to shift the discussion from “why?” to “how can we replace all of the playgrounds without draining reserves and what type of playgrounds do we install?”
We determined the best course of action was to take a phased approach by replacing 1-2 playgrounds per year until all 14 playgrounds had been replaced. This eased budgetary concerns and set the community up for better reserve planning in the future. The most fun part of this entire process was we decided to involve the community fully in the planning and design process.
While this sounds like a lot of extra work, it put the board and management directly in touch with our “customers” – the children who would be using the playgrounds. By involving the community in the planning and design process, it helped the community avoid purchasing equipment that the children had no interest in playing on!
We developed a request for proposals and sent it to multiple vendors asking that they each develop several options for two separate age groups, 2-5-years, and 5-12-years. We required different component design concepts which would pull the children in and engage them. Specifically, we wanted more modern and challenging playground structures, which involve using more upper body strength. Striking a balance between challenging structures and providing accessible features for persons with physical disabilities is critical to achieving an integrated playground. We were cognizant not to overlook the needs of parents who would be visiting the playgrounds with their children. Picnic tables and benches were positioned in the line of sight of the playground equipment but would be adjusted throughout the seasons as the sun moved. We wanted to encourage a comfortable and inviting place where parents felt encouraged to linger and socialize with their neighbors.
Once three strong proposals had been submitted for both age groups, the playground options were put to a vote. We posted pictures of the proposed playground designs in the community center, put up signs and advertised in the community’s newsletter asking children to stop by the community center and vote for their first and second choices of playground configuration and which color scheme they prefer. This process required more time and effort from staff, but the end result has been paying dividends ever since.
We learned that the younger residents of the community really enjoyed being part of the process and having their opinions heard. The community’s unconventional approach to modernizing its playgrounds has been wildly successful in more ways than we anticipated. The children watch with excitement as they watch “their” playgrounds being built. Involving the children in the planning and design process generated “buy-in” with the younger residents in the community, which has translated into a sense of pride and ownership. Because of this, the community has experienced a significant decrease in vandalism of the playgrounds.
By Lee Kauffman, CMCA, APS, CPSI
Lee is the community manager for Little Rocky Run Homeowners Association where he has worked for over 20 years. His primary goal is to improve the lives of the community members and is always looking for a better way to not only improve amenities but the heart of the community. In addition, he also serves his community as a Cub Scout and Boy Scout leader.