Playspaces can add value to your ministry and draw your community — regardless of your budget.
Considering installing a play attraction at your church? You-like many other leaders-are onto something. Kids love play — and a play feature can be an outstanding ministry tool to reach families. Churches with innovative children’s spaces and features experience rapid growth. The good news is that you too can create a special destination and gathering spot in your church regardless of your budget.
As you begin your playspace project, follow these five recommendations to ensure your ministry maximizes its investment.
Get out and visit.
The first step in considering a playspace project is to visit other churches and see their play attractions. Visit churches that are larger and smaller than yours and those of different denominations. Seeing that’s out there will help you get a grasp of what you want — and what you don’t want.
In the initial planning stages of their new building project, Director of Children’s Ministry Cathy Rucker and Director of Preschool Ministry Cathy Lane of First Baptist Church in Humble, Texas, visited more than a dozen churches and took pictures of what they liked and disliked to better decide what they wanted in their new space. In addition to visiting churches, visit other kid-friendly facilities, such as children’s museums, family entertainment centers, and daycare centers.
Select a quality manufacturer.
Even if you’re on a strict budget, that shouldn’t mean you automatically select the lowest-priced option. Even high-end companies offer seasonal discounts and specials you can benefit from. I recommend buying quality over quantity since you’ll most likely be using the play features for many years. A higher price on the front end actually ends up costing less once you factor in maintenance costs of lower quality structures.
Know your safety-compliance regulations.
It’s always better to overplan than to realize once your playspace is complete that you aren’t in compliance. You need to know what specific requirements your state and local laws have for facilities caring for children. This information is typically available at your state regulatory agencies. And before beginning any project, it’s always wise to be sure you understand the insurance coverage on your church’s liability policy. Contact your insurance agent if you have any questions or concerns.
Independent risk consultant Mary Lou Iverson from Iverson & Associates advises, “Make sure the equipment you’re considering meets or exceeds the required safety standards from organizations such as American Society for Testing and Materials (astm.org), Consumer Product Safety Commission (cpsc.gov), and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ada.gov). In addition, you’ll need to commit to an ongoing inspection and maintenance program to keep the equipment in compliance.”
Determine age appropriateness.
Play equipment is designed and rated for specific age groups. Purchase the right equipment for the age groups using it. Typically, the older the children the more challenging activities they desire.
Create a destination.
Think outside Sundays and Wednesdays. How else will your new playspace enhance your ministry or your outreach efforts? What attractions will make your church a destination in your community?
Trinity Fellowship Church in Amarillo, Texas, is building a multipurpose children’s play center that’ll be perfect for hosting birthday parties, lock-ins, special events, and other gatherings-beyond the typical ministry uses.
Consider Your Options
Indoor and outdoor playspaces both have value and can be used effectively all week. When working on design projects, I think it’s important to include play elements that kids can’t find at home, at a park nearby, or anywhere else. That’s because what makes your playspace stand out from others will build buzz about your ministry and the cool stuff at your church. And the great news is that you can create a distinctive playspace on any budget — all you need is creativity and motivation. Let’s look at indoor and outdoor options for all budgets.
Collin Creek Community Church in Plano, Texas, created a unique net-enclosed basketball playspace with goals at different heights for all different ages.
“Our church loves basketball and this just fit us perfectly,” says Children’s Director Jenn Petersen.
In addition to considering your budget for indoor playspaces, it’s also important to determine what activities are part of your church’s DNA. How can you incorporate those elements along with a little creative use of your space? Here are two great ideas to get started.
Edutainment features are one of the best play attractions in terms of value and playability. These features are facades created with simple woodworking and paint. These imagination-fueled environments allow kids to interact with each other and role play in places such as a mock grocery store, a barn, and a library. Most likely there’s someone in your church who can build these in-house for you. All it takes is a few props, costumes, and toys and you’re ready to go. Cost can total just a few hundred dollars for supplies and materials.
Climbing Areas for Preschoolers
These brightly colored, foam wrapped play pieces are safe and durable. SafeSpace Concepts (safespaceconcepts.com) offers a variety of high quality features at great prices. Phunzone (phunzone.com) makes unique, colorful climbing products for preschoolers with multiple decks, activities, and slides. You install the units, and costs range from $300 to $2,500. A medium-size budget means you have more choices, but you still need to carefully consider every inch of the playspace you’ll build to get the most for your money. Since most churches will fit into this category, it’s especially important to visit larger and smaller churches to get an idea of what others have done. Here are several midrange ideas you can consider.
Inflatables provide high capacity and portability, which is especially helpful if you have space constraints. E-Inflatables (einflatables.com) and Ninja Jump (ninjajump.com) are two industry-leading manufacturers. Inflatables start around $1,500, but higher quality and larger attractions average $6,000 to $7,000.
Rock climbing walls are another terrific option, and they can be installed virtually anywhere. (Again, check with your insurance and regulatory agencies to ensure you’re in compliance and providing necessary safety devices.) Make sure you have the required safety padding around the wall. Rockwerx (rockwerxclimbing.com) offers 4×8-foot modular panels that are a great value and easy for you to install. Prices run $5,000 to $10,000 for a modular panel system.
Interactive Audio/Visual Systems
Optimusic (optimusic.com) is a brand new product just introduced to the U.S. market. Kids “play” this audio/visual system by interacting with colored, vertical light beams; any movement within the beams triggers a sound. It’s great interactive play for kids with special needs. Packages average from $3,500 to $9,500. Big budgets are wonderful-but how will you effectively spend your money? Consider these distinctive creations.
Modular, self-contained play structures are the best choice to maximize play value and capacity in a defined space.
“Our new playscape in the atrium lets everyone know that we love kids and they’re a priority in our church,” says Patty Weaver from Richland Hills Church of Christ in Richland Hills, Texas. Playsafe (playsafe.com) has designed and installed systems for 16 years and has solutions for all budgets. Budget at least $35,000 to get a large enough unit to make it an attraction.
Sculpted Play Pieces
Themed, sculpted foam play pieces are also popular attractions specifically suited for 2- to 8-year-olds. Playtime (playtime.com) creates remarkable themed play areas. These play pieces have been installed in more than 400 malls across the country and can be customized to match your ministry. Safety surfacing is required around the features, so budgets typically start at $15,000 for a small play area.
Whether it’s sensory lights that respond to motion, atmosphere lighting (for instance, to create the sensation of being inside the big fish’s belly), or interactive lighting games, this new trend in playspaces is wonderfully engaging. Some lighting options include light displays that respond to kids’ actions. Others create ambiance that changes as often as you like, and still others are games that engage kids’gross motor skills.
Lightspace Play provides interactive LED floor panels for multiple players and comes with a minimum of 10 games. The unit can run an almost limitless variety of programs to provide new games and interactivity periodically. Systems such as this start around $20,000.
Outdoor playspaces are limited only by your budget and imagination. The goal for outdoor play is to encourage physical and social skills in a safe environment. Here are ideas to consider. A small budget may mean you have limited funds — but it should also mean you place no limits on creativity. Try these shoestring ideas.
Sometimes the simplest things are the most effective play features. Natural elements such as hills, trees, dirt, grass, and sand can provide hours of organic entertainment. One year for my son’s birthday we hosted a Field Day themed party where we did potato sack races, Tug-of-War, egg toss, and more as our play activities. It’s still one of his favorite birthday party memories.
Get a talented gardener or landscaper from your church to assess your play area and offer suggestions to create a varied, child-friendly outdoor space. Contact your local county extension office ahead of time for a list of poisonous plants to avoid.
Wooden Play Sets
Cedar and redwood play sets provide an affordable option that kids love. Companies such as Woodplay of the Carolinas (woodplaync.com) offer play sets starting in the $3,000 range. Ensure that the unit you’re considering is ASTM and ADA compliant, as standards for commercial play use differ greatly from residential use. They can also be self-installed by your volunteers. You can do a lot out-doors on a medium budget. Check out these innovative ways to grab kids’ attention and keep them coming back for the challenges.
An outdoor skate park can open a door to kids you might not have otherwise reached. Freshpark’s (freshpark.com) sells portable skateboard layouts that can be set up in your parking lot. These portable skate ramps start around $5,000. (Check with your insurer for special considerations.)
Kids have a natural urge to climb. Cre8Play’s (cre8play.com) StratoRock climbing boulder gives older kids who are bored with the standard play equipment a more challenging activity they’ll try over and over again. There are several models and sizes to select fromranging from $7,000 to $15,000. “This unsurpassed, realistic looking design features various degrees of challenge for users of all abilities and includes ADA ground level events and an optional slide attachment,” says Todd Lehman from Cre8Play. If the sky’s the limit, you may as well do something that will truly distinguish your playspace as a destination for kids and families.
Traditional outdoor play equipment can provide years of playability for your church and kids. But the key is to differentiate your church from the city park down the street. To do that, consider these attention-grabbing outdoor products.
Playspace components can include musical instruments and ways for kids to express themselves. For instance, Gametime (gametime.com) recently introduced GT Jams, which are interactive music-making elements such as drums, horns, whistles, and more spread throughout the play structure.
Interactive options are a growing trend that kids can’t seem to get enough of. Play and Park Structures’ (playandpark.com) Amaze panels, which offer activities from lacing and painting to acting and magnets, foster imaginative play and can be reconfigured so kids don’t tire of them.
Rather than offering a children-only destination, these upgrades to a typical outdoor playspace create a multigenerational destination for play, fun, and fitness for all ages and abilities. Enhancing your playspace will invite connection and activity, ultimately encouraging families to gather.
Typical investment for outdoor play systems including equipment and installation starts around $15,000. The key is determining your parameters and what’ll best meet your needs.
In the amusement industry, spray parks have become immensely popular over the past few years as a replacement for in-ground pools. These shallow or zero-depth wet playgrounds are colorful, interactive, and safe. RainDeck (www.raindeck.com) designs all types of splash pad layouts for a variety of budgets. Typical initial investment starts around $50,000.
Use these pointers to maximize your investment.
Create intentional play opportunities where kids get to know each other and your volunteer leaders by interacting and playing together.
Use your playspace for outreach.
Host birthday parties and other special events at your church. This could be your #1 outreach opportunity.
Add on as you can.
You don’t have to wait until you have financing for your dream playground. Instead, develop a master plan and add play features in phases as your budget allows.
“Decades of research in child development and recent research in brain development have substantiated the crucial role that play has in children’s optimal cognitive, physical, emotional and social development,” says Randy White from White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group.
We should never minimize the value of play. As children’s ministers and the church, we can be the innovators when it comes to creative facilities and destinations for kids. Don’t settle for emulating what others have done to reach kids; continually raise the bar higher. After all, we have the ultimate Source of creativity and originality backing us.
Reagan Hillier creates destinations for kids at church with his company, Worlds of Wow (worldsofwow.com).
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