Many view playgrounds as spaces designed exclusively for toddlers and school-aged children and believe that by the time they become tweens (10-12 years), they have lost interest in playing outside. Research supports this and suggests that tweens and teens spend greater amounts of time engaged in indoor activities. The unstructured play of the early years is also replaced by organized sports and activities. This transition to a more sedentary and structured lifestyle can pose health issues for our developing youth. So how do we design relevant play spaces that encourage tweens and teens to reconnect with the natural world?
In order to develop such spaces, playground manufactures should observe how older children play and socialize, consult with them about the playground features they like best, and then create play spaces incorporating these elements. When tweens and teens play, research has shown that they congregate in groups, compete with each other, and push playground equipment to its limits.
Four key elements with the greatest play impact on tweens and teens include competition, socialization, physical activity that centers on the upper-body, and challenge. Some new playground designs for tweens and teens incorporating these elements include: hang out spaces, gliding boards, cable climbing systems, soft rocks/boulders, spinning equipment, see-saws, and climbing walls. In addition to those mentioned above, circuit play systems also appeal to the competitive nature of tweens and teens. The equipment, setup as a series of events in a connected circle requires the user to complete the entire circuit while using a wide range of motions, working different body parts, and improving agility and balance as well.
However, even when play spaces designed exclusively for tweens and teens offer the best equipment, other factors determining its use still exist. Research has shown that location, food, and transportation are factors to consider. First, locating the play spaces in close proximity to other active play areas may help to draw older children to the equipment. Further, locating play spaces near other activities can be a powerful motivator to entice the entire family to come out and play. Additionally, research suggests play spaces with concession stands have better tween and teen attendance, and longer play experiences compared with those that do not. Finally, as many tweens and teens have social networks beyond their own neighborhoods, play spaces should be centrally located within walking or biking distance from most homes.
Developing exceptional play spaces for tweens and teens is part observation and part consultation. And be assured, if you build relevant play spaces that stimulate competition, socialization, physical activity, and challenge, the tweens and teens will come.