In a 1923 interview with a New York Times reporter, Himalayan mountain climber George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. His famous response, “because it is there,” may seem irreverent on its face, but beneath the deadpan lies a deeper truth. The desire to reach the top of things, to push ourselves to the outer limits of our capacities, is innate to the human experience.
The Outdoor Industry Association puts total participation in rock climbing in the United States at 4.7 million to 6.9 million people – and the trend doesn’t appear to be lagging. Of course people climb for reasons beyond “because it is there.” Some believe the climbing instinct is tied to our need to survive, to escape from potentially lethal danger. Others point to the physical challenge and the mental reward that comes with conquering the unknown as among the reasons people climb. My three-year-old climbs onto sofa arms, stereo speakers, just about anything he can scale, for reasons ranging from the desire for forbidden candy to the desire to be Spider-Man.
In the past decade, playground designers and manufacturers have charted a similar course to their counterparts in the rock climbing industry, developing new materials and structural systems that are allowing for lighter, taller, and more adventurous structures. Here we take a look at six trends that are making playgrounds friendlier—and more fun—for climbers.
Freestanding sculptural forms
Increasingly, designers are incorporating freestanding sculptural climbing structures that make use of small spaces and add visual interest to playgrounds. Rising to nearly nine feet but occupying only a 13 foot diameter use zone, Goric’s stainless steel Spaghetti 2 is a popular choice. The stand-alone design puts a twist on a ship mast, with an S-shaped curve that engages the upper body, torso, and legs as children pull themselves up. The corkscrew-shaped Spirallo is more of showpiece, with a graceful form that provides a great workout for the shoulders and triceps.
Cable net structures are not new, having originated in Europe half a century ago. But newer designs that reduce or eliminate the risk of fall to hard surfaces below are becoming ever-more popular. The unpredictability of rope-based movement, and the need to maintain three points of contact (a combination of hands and feet) to navigate cable net structures make them especially popular among children.
Writer Nicole Stoddard outlines several of the latest varieties in her article “Rope-Based Playgrounds” in a 2013 edition of Playground Magazine. A mast, or pyramid, cable net links to a traditional play structure and ascends to a point, allowing children to determine when they’ve gone high enough. A frame net, organized around an outer steel frame, “can be configured in just about any shape such as a rounded arch or hexagon formation.” Spinning climbing nets are structurally similar to pyramid nets, but allow a group of children to push the entire structure around in much the same way as a merry-go-round.
More than a decade ago, the city of Bozeman, Montana launched a new initiative to install artificial climbing boulders in parks across the city as part of a grant program intended to encourage fitness. While the natural landscape of Montana presented a natural opportunity to integrate climbing more directly into the park system, the trend has spread across the country as the use of concrete, glass composites, fiberglass and other materials have made these prefabricated formations lighter-weight and easier to ship and install.
The best boulder facsimiles are remarkably lifelike, with coarse, grainy textures, vein-like color variations, and comfortable grips. When gracefully integrated into the surrounding landscape, they can also add an attractive aesthetic quality. At several access points on Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates’ 606 trail in Chicago, for example, constructed boulders frame staircases and paved graded paths, providing an alternative route for children to scramble from the roadway to the trail. My son absolutely loves these (the closest he has ever been to bonafide mountain climbing). Other examples abound. Learning Landscapes’ Kunamokwst Park in Portland’s Cully neighborhood is a great case study of how boulders can be used as stepping stones to improve balance and coordination.
Once found mostly in indoor gyms, custom-built and off-the-shelf climbing walls are gaining popularity in playground designs. The Climbing Business Journal notes that most communities opt for climbing boulders or walls “around 10 feet in height, making them subject to the same ASTM International building standards as other playground equipment when it comes to fall zones and shock-absorbing surface materials.” But a number of city park departments are pushing the envelope. Scioto Audubon Park in Columbus, Ohio, has a free outdoor climbing wall whose arches rise to 35 feet, and Maggie Daley Park in Chicago offers bouldering, lead-harnessed, and top-rope climbing, as well as certification classes for beginning climbers on a partially inverted rock face 40 feet tall. For young children just beginning to climb, The Dunes by Goric offers a nice rock climbing simulation. Half-balls on both sides of the arrow-shaped structure support children’s feet or hands as they ascend to a maximum height of 6 feet.
More and more playground designers and manufacturers are recognizing the value of shock-absorbent surfaces as a way to make climbing safer by softening the impact of falls. Goric supplies rubber tiles and poured-in-place surfacing that meet the ASTM F1292 Safety Standard for impact attenuation for heights from 3’ to 10’. Beyond its safety benefits, rubber surfacing can be laid at a grade and used in tandem with rails and ropes as a tactile medium for climbing. For example, at Playa Vista playground in Los Angeles and Maggie Daly Park in Chicago, Goric’s Waterfall rail climbers are installed over rubber surfacing to enhance the climbing experience. Children can use the tubular steel rails as hand grips, while pushing off the soft, spongy surfacing with their feet. Rubber surfacing also integrates well at smaller school playgrounds or neighborhood pocket parks, where accessories such as steppers, balls, and palisades create parkour-like climbing spaces open to creative exploration.
Joe Frost, a playground scholar and former University of Texas professor, writes in a 2013 issue of Playground Magazine that children climb “for the sense of danger, and to access the top for success and observation.” While children need to experience a degree of apprehension to gain confidence and comfort in a world fraught with risk, we obviously don’t want them to get injured in the process. Thus, an important question for designers and manufacturers becomes, “How can we achieve a safe design, while not depriving children of the ‘sense of danger’ important to the development of their confidence?’”
One answer is found in the recent trend to enclose the higher landings of tall climbing structures in netting or caged-like grids. While preventing children from falling, these structures offer the sense of accomplishment that that comes with reaching lofty heights. Sightlines to the ground and the airy quality of partial enclosure give children the feeling of being suspended in space, without the danger. The K&K Dalben Tower and Wallholla by Carve fit this description to a tee and are both sold by Goric throughout North America.