Designer Tim Nash on the ultra-safe, super-stylish, catalog-driven modern playground in Babble’s Infant Industry.

In the early ’80s, I spent many sweltering Saturday afternoons with the Hamburgler. To play on this McDonald’s playscape, you had to climb a rickety ladder through a long, narrow steel cylinder. The steel-cage maw was perilously hot and confining, completely unlike the safety-first constructions of today. I have nothing but fond memories.


But there’s something to be said for the new era of playground equipment. Tim Nash, who designs for Portland-based Koch Landscape Architecture, spoke to Babble about the state of the modern American playground. He also shared a trade secret: in spite of all the thought and money and child-psychology that goes into the design of modern slides, swings and bouncy wooden bridges, kids use playground equipment however they damn well please. – Will Doig

Playgrounds today look so different than the ones I played on when I was young. What’s been the major change in playground design and theory in the past two decades?

Typically, it used to be the single unit that was shoved out onto some bark chips, or for that matter just onto asphalt. Now, for many reasons, you won’t see that. The way a lot of playgrounds are set up now is driven by safety protocol. Also, I think you see more consistency between playgrounds today because there are companies out there who just have the components in their catalogues, and everything just sort of goes together.

Safety protocols have also changed the nature of playgrounds.

It’s the main driving force. It’s also the most challenging aspect because there are so many guidelines in every direction, particular the CPSC [U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency] guidelines, which sets the standards for things like fall heights, for the space around each piece of equipment, even for how bolts and screws are covered. That kind of stuff ends up being the really challenging part of making things work, because you can sit there in the agency and think up a lot of crazy ideas to make playgrounds safer and safer, but trying to actually integrate them and make them work is challenging.

Who can be held liable if a kid gets hurt on a playground?

Put it this way: it’s not the designers, as long as the installation was done correctly per the guidelines. Essentially, the company that builds the piece of equipment is taking the liability for it. You won’t find many designers who want to actually design the individual pieces of equipment for the simple fact that they don’t want the liability. This is why the stuff is extraordinarily expensive.

How much might one piece of equipment cost?

A decent-sized piece of play equipment, like something upright that you can climb on? That stuff gets up in the thirty- or forty-thousand dollar range. The larger component pieces, the ones that are just enormous, can cost well over seventy-five, eighty, a hundred grand.

For all the new guidelines that the agency has set forth, do you feel that playgrounds truly are a lot safer than they used to be?

I mean, kids are crazy. They make up stuff you can’t plan for. And so I think those guidelines work well in that they provide a background, and on some level they call to your attention the need to look into littler things that one might overlook in terms of design, such as openings. There are minimum and maximum openings, so that a kid can’t get his head caught. But things like the maximum fall heights, that’s all relative. If a younger child is climbing on something he shouldn’t climb on and goes too high and falls eight feet, it’s not a good thing. But an older child, in the five-to-twelve range, may have the ability to take that fall a bit better.