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There is a new thinking in water play design that has as much in common with the ubiquitous splash park as a neighborhood playground has with an adventure destination.

We noted this trend several months ago in discussing the first season of the water play area at Knudsen Park in Holladay, Utah. The community there developed a series of canals, dams, gates, pumps and cranks that children can operate to move water back and forth in a variety of configurations limited only by their imagination.

In an area heavily dependent on irrigation, the water play design was guided by an intentional effort to educate through play.

Was it successful? Here’s what one writer had to say:

“A few weeks ago we did a bike meet-up at Knudsen Park in Holladay and man, it is a BEAUTIFUL park! … The main highlight for my kids was the water feature! The kids had to actually work to get the water up too. I knew as soon as I saw this water feature, that my husband was going to love it too. Win-Win for all!”

Outside of children’s museums, these types of water play installations are rare. But they are gaining attention both from professional planners and parents.

Researching how a newer destination park was being used, Kate Tooke, associate principal at the design firm Sasaki Associates, found the water play area to be the one area “where children are experimenting and making discoveries.”

“Over the course of a weekend,” Tooke reported, “We witnessed countless moments of experimentation, creativity and discovery as children pumped, dammed, diverted, released and splashed water. The air was full of questions like ‘What happens if…?’ and declarations like ‘Look what I did!’.

“One girl’s father watched her open and close spigots in a certain order and asked her what she was doing. “I’m engineering,” she told him matter-of-factly. Constructive play is critical for nurturing the kind of creative thinking currently in decline, and there is clearly an unmet appetite for more of it in the park.”

This is the approach we take at Goric when designing these types of water play installations.

Kemp Playground / Cambridge, Mass.

Explains Goric CEO Laura Guscott:

“Our philosophy of play is that the children have to ‘do something’ to get the water flow to work, move or change directions.

“Children must communicate and coordinate their efforts if they want to make a wheel turn down the line or if they want to dry up one side of the creek. Should the child at the pump continue pumping or should they stop? If there are multiple pumps, should they all be pumping at once? And so on.

“What makes equipment or a strategically designed water play system successful is that it allows the children to be in control.”

Echoing that approach to design, Sharon Exley, co-founder of Architecture Is Fun, said enabling children to make discoveries on their own is fundamental.

In our 25 year portfolio of play and public spaces, we aim for all experiences to be unguided, meaning they must operate at a base level without facilitation,” she said in an email. “Then programming is an added layer of learning and play.”

Water play components for one project were specifically geared to “self-discovery and use,” she said.

A decade ago, when Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard and MIT, was rethinking the role of “parks and playgrounds in the health, learning, and overall development of children,” it endorsed more adventurous and creative play.

“Play,” declared the city’s Healthy Parks and Playgrounds Task Force, “Involves building new things, not only in the physical world, but in the world of storytelling and make-believe – for instance, building a small hill out of sand and calling it a mountain. Play is also about being curious and exploring the unknown, trying out new ideas in new ways.”

Following its recommendations, the city now boasts several new and redeveloped parks and playgrounds; several include creative water play elements of pumps, runnels, water tables and sand. The task force report specifically mentions sand among the natural elements parks should include because they support “curiosity, creativity and imagination.”

“Outdoor play offers the opportunity to explore natural and built environments, to make physical contact with plants, soils, sand, water and all different kinds of materials, to learn about how different objects and materials interact, and to manipulate the environment by moving objects and building new ones.”

Water play troughs

K&K Water Play Troughs and Water Wheel

Parents will sometimes veto sand and soil components out of concerns over hygiene, safety and cleanliness. Yet, when you ask kids what they want, as the owner of Australia’s Rouse Hill Town Centre did when it was reimagimng its play areas, you find they want “water and sand elements where they can ‘make stuff’ and ‘bring stuff to play in it’.”

The Cooperative Extension System’s Alliance for Better Child Care says playing with sand and water enhances a child’s physical development and improves math and science and their social and emotional skills:

A “sand and water center provides important opportunities for children to practice cooperative play and sharing. It also helps children explore and enjoy the sensory experience of manipulating fluid materials.”

Enabling children to manipulate the play environment in an “unguided” way, as Exley says, allows them the joy of self-discovery, and to feel, like the childtold her father, that they’re “engineering.”