By: Lief McKay, ASLA, LEED AP

Most parents of young children I know have a favorite local park or two. Their reasons vary, but often boil down to something along the lines of convenience, cleanliness and safety. In other words, typical parental concerns. The same issues arise time and time again during the design process. I get it, I’m a father of two kids myself; but I’m also a landscape architect. Speaking from this dual perspective, I think we wise adults can, and should, do more to utilize some of the most creative, uninhibited members of our community: our kids.

Designing parks is a highlight of my job, because they are inclusive, egalitarian places that we all have the right to enjoy and in a sense, own. Municipal park design almost always includes a community outreach process with one primary goal: to find out what the community wants. Community outreach usually consists of one or more public meetings during which the participants are encouraged to share their thoughts and concerns through a variety of techniques and exercises. This process can be invaluable for the design team. Some park amenities are obvious, but who could have guessed there was a strong desire for a labyrinth? Or somewhere for a daily “laughing group” (no, this is not a typo) to congregate and crack themselves up?

Despite the fact that we have facilitated many community design processes over the years with tried and true techniques, it is still easy to overlook an important piece of the puzzle. Kids are the single biggest user-group of neighborhood parks, but are all too often left out of the design process; as adults we feel comfortable speaking on their behalf. Didn’t your mom always know what was best for you? To these kids the park is so much more than clean restrooms and easy parking – it is Sherwood Forest, the high seas, outer space or Hogwarts. If you don’t get this reference ask any elementary student on the planet.

You probably remember the Bill Cosby TV show “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” Well, it’s absolutely true. Kids’ imaginations are rich, and their minds are unfettered by the problems and constraints that adults cannot seem to get past, such as building codes, liability and so on. If designers and agencies can keep an open mind and actually listen to what the kids (who are essentially their customers) are saying, it can lead to satisfying results that still work in the “real world.”

Here is a case study of how we put this hypothesis to the test: The City of San Luis Obispo is in the process of upgrading several of their aging playgrounds. In order to proactively engage their target demographic in the design process, RRM and City staff held a design workshop at a local elementary school. Parents were invited, but the agenda was clearly focused on the younger audience. The kids were asked to share their insights on their favorite parks. They were also animated participants in a group brainstorming session about desirable play features (“two-story tower with a zip line!”). However, the most interesting and revealing exercise involved each child drawing their ideal playground. One of my favorite responses is shown. It includes treehouses, bridges, slides and a river. Seems a little far-fetched, right? On the contrary, this 10 year old landscape architect will be delighted to find out that the final playground includes a tree-house, a bridge, slides and more. (No river, sorry!) In fact, many of the features in the new playground design, including a clubhouse, climbing rocks, and net climbers, are directly attributable to that exercise. Hopefully that connection will not be lost on those kids when they first visit the park.

To further illustrate this point, I recently taught a landscape architecture elective at my nine year old son’s school. The class of twelve students ranged in age from 4th to 6th grade. Over the five week course, each student designed and presented their vision for a new park on the school site. The proposals varied from the restrained to the outrageous (think underground tunnel maze system). One particularly ‘out-of-the-box’ thinker took the liberty of razing half the surrounding neighborhood to make room for his hang-glider rental facility and combo exotic plant arboretum/paintball range. But regardless of how feasible each concept was the designers proudly walked the class through their perfect park. I can assure you there were plenty of great ideas that I would not have thought of in a thousand years.

I got into this profession for the same reason many of my colleagues did – because I have a creative urge and find great personal satisfaction in designing public spaces. My take-away from these recent experiences is that it is worth looking beyond one’s own experiences and perspectives, and to pay close attention to your end users (in this case, children). Also, kids really like zip lines.

Ultimately it is the consultant’s job to worry about the details, but I am an advocate of tapping into the vast imagination of kids. If you take up the challenge you might be surprised with the results, and you will probably have a blast along the way.