Playgrounds Were Nothing New, Until Goric’s Founder Helped Change the Game
It all comes down to perspective. Children explore a world much different than the ones inhabited by adults. Everything is bigger and harder to reach. As a child, it can often seem that adults spend their time telling you what not to do, rather than encouraging you to reach beyond assumed limitations. It takes a special person to inherently understand this. Rick Henke is such a person. Long before his approach and ideas came to be accepted in mainstream playground design, he would drive this point home during design presentations by climbing onto a table, looking down at the group before him, and reminding them that,
“This is how children feel. They look up all day long, but when they climb and get to the top, they can finally look down at the world.”
Mr. Henke’s approach is limitless in his thinking. The idea of creating a playground that focuses on limitless fun is a foundational belief for him. This is why he always seeks to create playgrounds where there are few if any limitations to beneficial play. Children allowed to explore and play as unencumbered as possible are also more willing to fix their gaze upon the horizon and push to explore new possibilities as adults. Mr. Henke’s designs begin with the knowledge that when all possibilities are open and available for exploration, only then can a person’s potential begin to be reached.
From Playgrounds to Playscapes and Beyond
It can be hard to remember the time when playgrounds offered only a limited set of choices. Children could play on the slide, or play on the swings, or, perhaps, challenge themselves on monkey bars, and that would be just about it. No one seemed to have the thought that perhaps the slide is how children might get to the swings, or that the hard metal monkey bars would be more fun and challenging if made of rope instead. In the 1970s this limited approach to playground design and creation finally began to change. That’s when Children’s Playgrounds, Inc. was founded in Canada by Mr. Henke’s brother Horst.
They were among the first to create what are now called playscapes. Essentially, playscapes are continual play units with multiple platforms that encourage children to discover different ways to access and climb from one place to the next. There is often no set way to do any particular activity, which further encourages children to apply their own creativity when seeking a solution to any given obstacle. They’re also a lot more fun. Mr. Henke’s playscapes are also among the first to begin including natural geographic landscapes into a playground’s design. Innovative ideas, such as incorporating a long slide into a nearby hillside, or using a tall tree instead of building a tower, can be traced directly back to the development of playscapes.
Inclusive, Innovative, and Beneficial for All
Mr. Henke’s extensive efforts at developing playscapes are one aspect of a trend now recognized as heralding the modern era of playground design. Another aspect is the creation of playgrounds and playground equipment that can be accessed by children with different abilities. Again, Mr. Henke’s work demonstrates a unique ability to understand the perspective of children. He became a pioneer in the design and building of wheelchair accessible playgrounds long before such access was a normal consideration or a regulatory requirement. His work goes beyond incorporating ramps for access to include integrated activities so children with different abilities can become physically involved and gain the benefits of play participation. This consideration also extends to those with sight, hearing, and other impairments as well, which has led to the development of tactile playground equipment that encourages sensory exploration, such as water pumps, sand movers, and incorporating materials meant to be explored by touch.
Anything Fun and Worth Doing Involves Risk
It can surprise many to learn that Mr. Henke is not an architect, as many playground designers are. His background is actually in mechanical engineering. Far from being an impediment to his understanding of playground design, approaching playground development from the perspective of an engineer has helped drive innovation. At its most basic definition, engineers are tasked with discovering creative solution to intractable problems. They seek not to do what has always been done, but to explore the possibilities within a given set of restrictions. Rick was on the original Canadian standards board that preceded the ASTM. He was instrumental in establishing guidelines for understanding the risk associated with playground equipment. He also understands that the guidelines are just that, a series of best practices to keep in mind, and should not confine good playground design.
Many playground designers are often hesitant to introduce truly new concepts to the playground industry because they may not fit neatly into a category within the standards. Not fitting into a current category does not mean new equipment does not conform. It just means that you have to use professional judgement when deciding if an innovative design complies to the set standards. For example, when Mr. Henke became one of the first to introduce net structures to the American market, there was no mention of them within the ASTM. Instead of abandoning the idea, Mr. Henke evaluated the nets, along with their manufacturer, to make sure that they would meet the general standards for head entrapment, string entanglement, hardware type and size, along with other standards. Now that such nets have become more mainstream, they have been evaluated by ASTM committees and standards have been created. In Mr. Henke’s view, this is how such standards should work. This is how playgrounds continue to innovate.
A Continuing Impact
Mr. Henke’s work encourages sensory exploration by children of all ages and abilities. The resulting playgrounds are functional, beautiful, and both introduce and mitigate playful risk to the benefit of every member of a community. Even with his extensive success, the goal of creating more possibilities for limitless play continues to drive the innovative development of playgrounds and playground equipment. As head of Goric, Mr. Henke has fostered a network of sales consultants who design, market, and install playground equipment with the goal of helping children and adults meet their full physical, mental, social and emotional potential. This continuing effort helps to ensure that the significant benefits of regular play become increasingly available to us all.
One Final Thought
When you dedicate your life’s work to creating playgrounds, you can never lose your own sense of playful fun. Should you ever happen to find yourself at a trade show or similar event where Goric is presenting, Mr. Henke will be happy to demonstrate playground equipment such as the Whirlwind, take a look: