Once the structures have been selected, the next step is to provide playground users with the right kind of shade in the right places. Shade not only keeps people and equipment from getting too hot, it also shields kids from harmful UV rays. "We do more and more playgrounds every day with some kind of shade," Reese said, "be it natural or manmade." He estimated that in certain areas of the country, nearly 90 percent of new playgrounds incorporate some type of shade, and said, "I think the trend in the industry is how to incorporate those shades in a very fun manner."
With careful placement and good design, shades can have a tremendous impact on the temperature of any playground structure. "You have a phenomenon of lowering the temperature in the shade in the summer months by as much as 20 degrees on the play equipment," Norquist said.
Customers report they're pleased that their kids can play on the equipment year-round, which Norquist said is a compelling usability function. "The different shade designs, from simple rectilinear to highly architectonic sail-type designs, with multiple different colored and shaped panels, are quite beautiful," he said.
What's below the play structure is just as important as what's above it, and surfacing continues to be an important safety feature of any playground. "When you think about the purpose of surfacing, primarily it's to attenuate a fall from equipment to the ground to make it safe to play in that play area," Norquist said. As surfacing materials have advanced, playgrounds have been able to expand upward, with some structures reaching nearly 16 feet tall. Fortunately, the looks of surfacing materials have improved along with their performance. "What we're seeing today is the use of beautiful, colorful mosaics and designs, and oftentimes the mixture of sound and sensors into that surfacing to make the surfacing as playful as the equipment that it's protecting."
Today, the type of material used for surfacing is scrutinized not only for its safety functionality, but also for its cost efficiency and contribution to accessibility, according to Menke. "The trend is to use and recycle materials, and at the same time reduce maintenance costs in maintaining engineered wood fiber, sand and pea gravel surfacing materials, while also meeting federal ADA requirements for fully accessible playgrounds," he said. Depending on the climate, landscape and other factors, artificial turf and rubber mulch are also popular choices for new installations.