Call it the invasion of the teenagers.
That sounds menacing, and for many parents and their youngsters that's exactly how it feels when teens converge on playgrounds intended for younger children.
One company has studied this troubling trend and developed a novel solution - playground equipment for older kids.
KOMPAN, a major international playground equipmentmaker headquartered in Denmark, claims its 10 Plus products provide "a special place for a difficult age," namely those between 10 and 15.
"When you analyze where teenagers are, they are almost always someplace where nobody really wants them to be," says Maj Stillinger-Beresford, a KOMPAN manager who studies children's play patterns. "They have a strong urge to be somewhere where things belong to them, and they are welcome. We saw they didn't have that."
To address this need, KOMPAN closely observed teen behavior to determine why playgrounds work for teens and how they might be tailored to their needs.
What the company came up with was equipment that allows them to switch from being in action to chatting quietly with friends.
"We want kids to hang out, and while they're hanging out, we want them to do some stuff, to expend some energy," says John LaRue, KOMPAN's New England sales representative. "Ninth-graders are always wiggling, always moving."
Teens like to sit and talk, but they often don't use benches in conventional ways. KOMPAN's designs take these sitting positions and postures into account.
The seating areas and platforms provide places to talk, while watching friends using active equipment. "Showing off is what makes kids want to move," says Ms. Stillinger-Beresford.
"Boys above 10 can be physically very active," she adds, "but girls over 10 or 11 are rarely physically active in public spaces. Boys play ball or skateboard. Girls sit or walk."
Girls need encouragement to stretch and stay supple, Stillinger-Beresford says. So KOMPAN makes equipment that simulates dance and ski movements.
In Europe, the company has successfully marketed 10 Plus. In the United States, the product line is a much harder sell. That may relate to material preferences. Wood, a mainstay of KOMPAN products, is a more-popular playground choice in Europe than in the US.
There's a more fundamental social difference at play here, too, says Mr. LaRue. "When it comes to outdoor recreation in this country, funding really dries up after age 12. All the funds are directed at at-risk youth and are channeled into alcohol prevention, teen-pregnancy prevention, drug prevention, and [checking] antisocial behavior. If they do anything for older kids, it's to bring them indoors so they can be supervised and managed."
An excellent example of spaces accommodating teens and younger children is in East Lyme, Conn., where a few hundred yards separate a 10 Plus play structure from the little kids' playground. The unit sits next to a basketball court and offers the recreational options LaRue says teens are looking for - "socializing, being with their peers, a little basketball, a little exercising, hanging out."
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