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"Designing" generally implies that a process will be followed in developing a plan that shows how something will look and function once it's built.
A plan is usually required when a number of elements need to be placed together in a coherent fashion that optimizes the space you have.
Depending on the project, each element (which the dictionary defines as a part or aspect of something abstract) may consist of a number of components, each of which may be abstract in itself.
So a typical client will have a number of components that need to be categorized into elements that need to be drawn together in a coherent plan.
You need to find a designer to help you do this.
Finding a designer
Here's where the discussion can become complicated, because there are good designers, and designers who are not so good, and it's really difficult to know the difference.
Furthermore, even a bunch of good designers will each have a different approach and each will develop a different plan, and all the plans may work equally well (or equally poorly).
So in terms of evaluating designers, this is not all that helpful.
So maybe it would be better to begin with something more familiar: playground equipment companies that offer to send representatives to your site to help you design a playground. This is a pretty standard procedure, and they all say that it is a free service.
However, you probably already know that about 25% of the cost of all equipment goes toward design fees, so even though the companies say the design consultation is free, it isn't. These fees are used to pay for the consultant's time and to design new equipment for their catalogs, but not necessarily to help you determine what's best for your site.
Second, though these representatives are very familiar with the various safety regulations outlined by ASTM and the Consumer Product Safety Counsel (CPSC), most of them do not have any formal training in the field of design, and they absolutely know nothing (or very little) about natural playgrounds.
Their design sessions consist of a large group meeting which brainstorms about playground themes and activities, and with those in mind, they help you choose items from their catalog that meet your budget.
Your "design" consists of laying out this equipment according to the distance between items as required by the CPSC and ASTM safety guidelines.
That's literally it.
Finding a good designer
Remember in the beginning we said that designing was a process of bringing together a number of abstract components to form a coherent plan.
To us at the Natural Playgrounds Company, it's way more than looking at the safety guidelines and arbitrarily plunking down equipment with the right spacing between it.
Our design approach is a very comprehensive process involving assessing the lay of the land, the people, the culture, the climate, the environment, groundwater flow, drainage and erosion issues, soil characteristics, bedrock formations, existing vegetation, the curriculum, the age of the children, age-appropriate activities, special needs, movement patterns, aesthetics, the buildings, transitions, the neighbors, community traditions, after hours use, energy levels, sustainability, maintenance, safety, supervision……
Whenever we take on a project, our first step is to present an informative, narrated, interactive slideshow designed to create a whole new frame of reference around Natural Playgrounds with an accompanying vocabulary, so that everyone who wants to be involved can provide informed, valuable input to the design process. This is also the point at which questions are addressed.
Our next step is to scan the property with our sophisticated 3-D scanner so we can establish accurate boundaries, building locations, existing tree locations and sizes, sidewalks, parking lots, underground utilities, fence lines, and so on, and most important, land contours down to a 3 inch interval. This fine delineation gives us accurate information about the flow of surface water so we can direct it and use it creatively on the site for either water play or for watering plants, and it allows us to know exactly where to enhance the three-dimensional characteristics of the property in the most efficient way.
The third step in the process is to watch how the children interact with the existing playground, and how the supervisors interact with the children.
The fourth step is the visual analysis, part of which is taking a full set of digital photos for future reference during the actual design phase. During this step, we look at the lay of the land, signs of water issues, condition of the existing vegetation, the relationship between the building(s) and the land, the scale of the site, the architecture of the neighborhood, views from the site and to the site, the movement of the sun, direction of the wind, and so on.
Fifth is the administration of two very comprehensive (30 page) questionnaires, one for the teachers in each age group, and one for the administration. This gives us a range of information about curriculum needs and desires, comfort levels, playground issues, nature-based education, land use, expectations, and so on.
All of this is then taken back to our office where our professional design staff assesses, evaluates, and interprets the information, and turns it into a beautiful, workable, efficient, buildable design presented to you in a photo-realistic format which is dimensionally accurate and to-scale, looks very much like a photograph of the finished project taken from the air (which even children can understand), and which is an outstanding fundraising tool.
We know a lot about fundraising and grant writing, so we are more than happy to help in those areas, and if you need construction coordination and/or oversight, or actually need someone to build the project, our Natural Playgrounds Construction Company can easily handle those aspects of the project, as well.
We love community built projects and can work with you around many aspects of this approach. We can coordinate and direct them, or oversee them to make sure they're being done correctly.
You should know, however, that it is a rare occasion that a completely volunteer project is successful for these reasons:
Finding this kind of volunteer is almost impossible.
We have also had a number of clients who have hired landscape contractors to build their Natural PLaygrounds.
If you're lucky, this can work out well. Usually we find that while landscape contractors can be very good at installing patios, walkways, terraces, stairs, and landscaping, they aren't comfortable with installing three-dimensional natural playgrounds because it's new to them and they don;t understand what goes into them.
Further, they usually know nothing about the ASTM and CPSC safety guidelines, and nothing about licensing standards, which then increases the risk of a substandard playground that does not meet safetycodes.
Additionally, because most landscape contractors haven't built a natural playground before, they don't know how to price them, so they bid high, which is unfortunate for you.
These are all the reasons we started our Natural Playgrounds Construction Company 10 years ago. It turns out that sending our crews all over the country, and trying to keep track of local permitting requirements (which differed everywhere), and licensing requirements in all 52 states all over the country (which also differed everywhere) was too much to keep track of, so we closed down the construction end of things. The reason we mention this, however, is that that construction experience was invaluable to the other two divisions in our company. With the construction information, we got feedback about our designs and what worked well and what didn't, so we incorporated all of that into our design process.
But we also have a manufacturing division which designs, tests, and manufactures over 100 play and learning elements, so our construction team gave us feedback about those elements as well. Consequently, we were able to refine our designs so the elements provided the best experience for children, and we were able to refine our assembly and installation instructions so they are very simple and easy to follow.
Both our natural played around designs and our play and learning elements meet all ADA, ASTM, CPSC, and licensing safety standards and guidelines.
Or, if you're at a point where you merely want to add some natural play elements to your existing playground, check out our on-line store here.