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`Soft tech' Playports - a space-age answer to slides and swings

By Paul SedanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 1987

Charlotte, N.C.

Here as elsewhere in the United States, parents taking their children out to a fast-food restaurant are apt to be steered toward one that has a Playport. A Playport is a compact, modularized arrangement of children's play equipment. When you first catch sight of one, it looks as if a child had gotten hold of a giant, colorful erector set and gone wild. Or as my wife said, ``It looks just like part of a space station.''

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``The thrust for the Playport idea sprang from the realization that there have been no major improvements in children's play equipment for over 50 years,'' says Jack Pentes, the industrial designer-turned-entrepreneur who invented Playports.

``What most people consider play equipment is the traditional galvanized steel A-frame swings, the polished metal slides, the wooden plank teeter-totter, and so on. But I believe that this type of equipment is almost insulting to children when you consider the tremendous play potential inherent in every child.''

Mr. Pentes believes children become easily bored with the traditional type of play gear and as a result move into what he calls the ``reversal syndrome.'' This takes place, for example, when kids get tired of a slide and invent other ways of using it - like climbing up instead of sliding down.

Pentes has developed what he calls ``soft, high-tech play'' - equipment you can play in rather than on. He uses soft, flexible materials like foams, plastics, and vinyls, combining them into modular environments which encourage a child's inventiveness. So far 375 playports have been built in the US, and over 30 in other parts of the world.

People have sometimes questioned the Playport's safety, but the the ``soft tech'' nature of the gear is inherently safer than conventional playground equipment, Pentes argues. He says the record is good: After more than 10 million trips through Playports, there have only been 6 cases in as many years severe enough to require first aid. None have needed hospitalization.

``Because we can control the play environment, '' says Pentes, ``we feel we have really minimized any potential hazards. We realize we can't control kids' actions because they'll throw themselves around every which way. But by choosing our materials carefully and then applying their use in designed situations, which take into account what they might do, we believe can can provide a safe yet fun environment.''

The idea for Playport started to germinate in 1979. At that time, Pentes's firm was retained by Anheuser-Busch's Entertainment division, which had a joint-venture agreement with Children's Television Workshop to build the world's first play-for-pay facility in Langhorne, Pa. Called ``Sesame Place,'' it was to be based on TV's ``Sesame Street'' characters. Ironically, Pentes was not retained to design the play equipment but to create specific marketing materials. As a result, he was on hand to see the project develop.

While he believed the completed project was successful, he felt it was too expensive.

``They spent $14 million on just two and one-half acres of play,'' he says. ``This made me realize that while the children were very excited about what they found at `Sesame Place,' you had to bring the costs down to manageable dollar amounts if that kind of play environment were to proliferate. It was just too expensive to go across the country.''

As an industrial designer, Pentes was intrigued with the possibility of applying mass production methods to play equipment, in an effort to bring down the price. In the process, he concluded that children hadn't really been observed at play in depth and, as a result, there were design potentials that had simply not been exploited.

The fruit of his observations and research is a unique concept based on 6-foot-square modules. These standard parts can be combined to form an almost unlimited variety of play situations.

The king of Pentes's play environments is the ``Free Play One'' - an 18-by-24-foot, two-level configuration most favored by fast-food operations. With a capacity of ``playing'' 75 children at a time, it consists of the following elements:

Cargo Climb - soft, nylon cargo-type nets which elevate kids to the second level.