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15.06.2018 - Ausgabe: 3/2018

Playgrounds at leisure parks

by Dr. Dieter Brinkmann (University of Bremen)


The origin goes back to "public festivals"

Let's face it: The origin of even the most modern leisure parks goes back to the music hall, to public festivals on the village square where once or twice a year carousels and swing boats were built up and, maybe, also a shooting gallery as well as a fairground High Striker where the strongest men were given the opportunity to give proof of their strength by striking a lever with as much force as possible. [1]But where did playgrounds have their place in those days? And how important are they today and what are the challenges in view of the challenging amusement rides, shows and animal enclosures? What type of playground design would be both appropriate, attractive and future-oriented?

As already described by Rolf Lohberg in his book about leisure parks in Germany, which was particularly addressed to tourists and published in the 1990s, the number of leisure facilities has increased both rapidly and steadily. Leisure parks have become exciting places, which leads one to the conclusion that even the ancient motive that once used to entice people to go to village festivals and have fun together, can be interpreted in ever new ways. Nowadays, the big leisure and theme parks present themselves as complex installations with thematic amusement rides, high-quality show acts, elaborate catering trade and individually designed tourist accommodation. In addition, these leisure facilities also have big and small playgrounds for children and families, one of the core target groups of such parks.

However, it is no longer a matter of just "sliding, playing in the sand box, swinging or climbing", which represents the caricature of a loveless and unattractive play area for small children and families. In the leisure park, the "young customer is king", an important aspect which should always be reflected in the design of playgrounds. Another provocative statement says that an animal park does not need much more than a petting zoo and a playground to make families happy. However, we will now take a closer look and provide more details.


The role and the importance of playgrounds

A playground is generally understood as a recognisable place that offers particular and mostly body-related options for action, such as climbing, sliding, swinging and so forth to both very young and older children, which means it is a play area for children.[2] In the majority of cases it is an easily accessible, normally cheap leisure offer for families which includes open-air leisure and recreational aspects as well as socialising. There is no playground without seating areas for the accompanying adults or senior citizens. But shouldn't the entire leisure park be considered a playground? Aren't the everyday rules lifted by focusing on the reasonable creation of a "special experience"? And isn't it a fact since the Walt Disney Park was founded in the 1950s the big promise of leisure parks is not just focusing on cleanliness and safety, but also on the "playful and intuitive discovery" of fairytale worlds, including the appropriation and spirit of new roles and views?[3] At least some park design concepts reflect this totality of playing.
However, this approach concentrates less on rollercoasters, but aims more at families with younger children and a diversity of playing options which allow joint experiences (Potts Park, Legoland, Ravensburger Spieleland and others are some examples). But there are also other similar concepts which focus on the great importance of specific play areas and a playful use of time. By no means they lead a shadowy existence. They are rather the product of conscious design and integration into the park landscape.

Nevertheless, in view of the inclusion of interactive play elements into thematic fairground rides, the concept of the playground in its proper sense, is blurred. For instance, in the Portuguese part of Europapark, the biggest German leisure park, one can - in a seafarer context - shoot with "water cannons" at the boats of the fairground facilities. When the water spout hits the water, a big fountain shoots out high. This is fun for both the different actors on the shores and those in the fairground boats.[4] For sure, this is an attractive combination of rollercoaster and playground. On the other hand, some of the thematic park elements find their way into the otherwise marked-off play area for the young visitors. This is mainly due to the design along the connecting "story" (foreign cultures, technology and history). The playground with its familiar basic forms thus gains a second level of importance and is often associated with an emotionalisation of the experience product.
Hence, the starting point of the slide may be in a castle and not at the top of a plain frame. Climbing elements connect individual towers. Some tubes lead into the underground (dungeon) and out again and so forth. Cultural elements, such as symbols, architecture and projections increase the complexity of the installations and lead, if possible, to a phantasy world of a special kind, thus lifting the boundaries between playground and theme world.[5]

Leisure and theme parks can be understood as a central sector of a growing "Experience Economy", the structures of which were described for the first time and in more detail by the American economists Pine and Gilmore almost 20 years ago. [6]The actual product is immaterial and, what is even more important, it must appeal to the target group. However, the focus is not just on happy children and families, but on the memories of shared experiences and on the memorable state of mind. [7]As a general rule, leisure parks primarily depend on returning visitors. Family friendliness is therefore rightly considered as the key policy of leisure parks. Nevertheless, a playground also has to contribute to this goal as an integral part of leisure parks under similar "rules", also rollercoasters and themed restaurants have to comply with.

Design principles for integrated playgrounds

So, what is it that makes playgrounds in leisure parks interesting? What design principles can be identified? However, there are hardly any scientific studies so far. It is, however, fairly obvious that there is much that can go wrong. Playgrounds can both be boring and dangerous. It may happen that very little effort is made as to the design of play areas and meeting the expectations of the target group. At this point the question arises of how the Applied Leisure Sciences could be of help.

The aspect of "thematisation" has already been mentioned. For many years, it has been considered as elemental in view of modern leisure parks. At the same time, the type of story and its technical realisation - analogue or digital - in the theme park have undergone continuous progress. The integration of playgrounds into theme parks in an authentic way is an important overall aspect, which must refer to the everyday aesthetics of the target group. [8]According to Pine/Gilmore, in addition to this aestheticisation of play facilities, which may also delight adult visitors, the aspect of scenario-building by which the target group becomes "emotionally immersed" and which would open new opportunities for action, must also be taken into consideration. That is how the so-called flow-experience could be achieved. That is to say, children forget the time and everything else around them by immersing into their game scenario and dedicating their entire attention to their current action.
[9]Still, in the so-called "testing centre" in the Legoland theme park in Günzburg, Germany, the ramp seems to be most typical for self-built Lego cars. The possibility to control the speed of the cars through time measurement is particularly interesting for those young builders. It is the handicraft work, the testing and playing with the ramp which makes up the flow effect. [10]Many other attractive offerings of the park are then pushed into the background. Other noticeable, interesting dimensions in other areas are, for instance:

  • subjectively felt size of the park
  • challenges according to experiential education
  • crossing boundaries towards other theme park attractions

However, the discovery of diverse adventure landscapes fascinates the players. Thus, a "maze" is an interesting basic figure for theme park designers, due to the fact that they have their origin in the baroque palace grounds with their hedgerow gardens and shepherd games. Hence, it is not the size of the play area at the leisure park which seems to be the most important factor, but the creation of opportunities which enable the park visitors to discover many different spaces, passageways and paths.[11]Getting absorbed in the play area may enhance the flow effect. According to the modern "experiential education", this leads to specific challenges. With this pedagogical method, the personal development is associated with temporarily leaving the comfort zone by acting within a rather unfamiliar growth area.[12] Both, rides in leisure parks and play areas could to a varying extent be challenging and thus stimulate informal educational processes.

Although slides, climbing facilities and other play devices should not cause panic and remain safe, they are boring and without interest if they don't offer any challenges. This is certainly also true for very young visitors who have just taken their first steps on their own. So, does "no risk, no fun" also apply to playgrounds?

In this context, Hugo Kükelhaus, the forerunner of "experiential terrains for our senses", should be remembered. [13]Today, many designers of parks and leisure centres refer back to his design ideas without even being aware of their roots. Kükelhaus wanted far more than just enjoying physical activity. His idea was based on the "incarnation" based on using and thus developing one's senses, an aspect which today in view of the virtualisation of experiences and one-dimensionality of many digital experiences, is getting ever more up to date. To experience (for oneself) the elementary forces of nature, such as a pendulum movement, sounds or vibrations, could still nowadays enrich and enhance the living worlds of children and families. To this effect, playgrounds are thus to be considered "experience-oriented learning places" and should therefore be developed accordingly.
[14] In addition, the social function of playgrounds should always be taken into account, too: playgrounds as a stage for children and families, as a place for adventure and joint experiences. In this context, play equipment, which can be used by both children and adults, is hence particularly suitable.

Crossing boundaries is the third interesting design aspect which can currently be seen in other highly dynamic leisure sectors, for instance in big water parks. In some of them, close encounters with animals are offered (such as swimming with penguins in the Spreewelten-Bad in Lübbenau, Germany), while others focus more on integrating cultural elements from regional and global contexts. [15] Thus, the merger of petting zoo and climbing park, playground and cinema or water park and digital interaction is likely to be expected. A lot is possible in a recreational environment in which the obviously familiar distinctions between the (real and medial) experience options no longer exist. According to the "positive surprise" mode, the overfulfilment of expectations appears to be happening, at least in these days.

Orientation could finally also be established by taking a look at the theory of games. The following are the basic types of "ludic acting":

  • the playful (childlike) way of passing the time (ludus)
  • the competition, for instance a sports competition (agon)
  • the game of chance, such as throwing a dice (alea)
  • the masques by playing different roles (mimikri)
  • ritual play which brings its players to a state of (religious) ecstasy (ilinx).[16]

So, the play options at theme parks should take up these aspects in very different ways. The way these have been implemented in various play areas shows that many game ideas and play options have not yet been made full use of. They rather follow pragmatic ideas regarding feasibility or are characterised by specific conventions. However, does this bring us back to the old type of climbing tower made from simple poles because it doesn't need much maintenance? Or rather to the thematic climbing world including options for role-playing games, competitions based on elaborate rules and unexpected happenings, good or bad luck and exhilarating moments of joint experience? 

However, both old and new types of games are characterised by an inspiring game world, transparent rules and contingency. Thus, the purpose of playing is to be found in the game itself, the aspect of which should, however, be defended against the mere and hasty functionalisation, also in the context of leisure and theme parks. This applies to both unreasonable commercial demands and aspects of digitised identification and analysis of user profiles and behaviour patterns.



In the broadest sense, today, playgrounds are central elements of family-oriented offerings of leisure and theme parks. A successful design of such parks requires much more attention than it was the case just a few years ago due to the fact that nowadays the target group has much more knowledge about the offerings of the leisure and tourism industry. Visits to theme parks during vacation and the merger of tourist and adventure attractions and travel resorts for short trips into multi-optional adventure landscapes have contributed to this result. In addition, the operators are interested to retain existing customers and win new ones, such as families with young children which, in fact, are becoming increasingly fewer in view of the demographic change.

In the year 2030, playgrounds will probably be virtually enhanced and digitally controlled. Today, the digitisation seems to be a viable option for many leisure areas to promote innovation and provide the target group with "new" experiences and adventures. At the same time, it is still important to tell stories in a playful way in order to create a lasting memory and fascinate both children and adults. On an overall basis, the knowledge of the interdisciplinary applied leisure sciences about target groups, their patterns of behaviour and experience as well as possible effects of playing should be given greater consideration. Already today, distinctive and individual designs which include both the aspect of entertainment and learning are essential also for economic success of large leisure facilities and will, indeed, become even more important in the future.



Brockhaus 1964.

Caillois, Roger (1960): Die Spiele und die Menschen. Maske und Rausch (Games and human beings. Mask and ecstasy). Stuttgart: Schwab.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2000). Das flow-Erlebnis (The flow effect). Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta

Eisner, Michael D. (2000): Von der Micky Maus zum Weltkonzern (From Mickey Mouse to a global player). München (Munich): Heyne.

Freericks, Renate, u.a. (2005): Projekt Aquilo (The Aquilo Project). Bremen IFKA

Freericks, Renate, Brinkmann, Dieter, Theile, Heike (2017), Erlebnisbad 2030 (Waterpark 2030). Bremen: IFKA.

Grötsch, Kurt (2002): Emotionales Management und emotionales Lernen in Erlebniswelten (Emotional management and emotional learning in theme parks). In: Nahrstedt, Wolfgang u. a. (2002a): Lernen in Erlebniswelten. Perspektiven für Politik, Management und Wissenschaft (Learning in theme parks. The prospects of policy, management and science). Bielefeld: IFKA, pages 42-61.

Heckmair, Bernd, Michl, Werner (1998): Erleben und Lernen. Einstieg in die Erlebnispädagogik (Learning and experiences. First steps into the experiential education arena). 3. Aufl. Neuwied (Third edition).

Kükelhaus, Hugo, Zur Lippe, Rudolf (1992): Erfahrungsfelder zur Entfaltung der Sinne (Exemplary fields to experience all the senses). Fankfurt/M. Fischer-Taschenbuch.

Lohberg, Rolf (1998): Freizeitparks in Deutschland (Leisure parks in Germany).Stuttgart: Deutscher Sparkassenverlag, page 7

Nahrstedt, Wolfgang u.a. (2002): Lernort Erlebniswelt. Neue Formen informeller Bildung in der Wissensgesellschaft (Learning place theme park. New types of informal education in the knowledge- based society). Bielefeld: IFKA

Nahrstedt, Wolfgang u.a. (2002a): Lernen in Erlebniswelten. Perspektiven für Politik, Management und Wissenschaft (Learning in theme parks. The prospects of policy, management and science). Bielefeld: IFKA

Pine, B. Joseph; Gilmore, James.H. (1999): The Experience Economy. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Schulze, Gerhard (1993): Die Erlebnisgesellschaft. Kultursoziologie der Gegenwart (The event society. Cultural sociology of the present.) Frankfurt/M.: Campus.



[1]Lohberg, Rolf (1998): Leisure parks in Germany. Stuttgart: Deutscher Sparkassenverlag, page 7

[2] Brockhaus 1964.

[3] See Eisner, Michael D. (2000): Micky Maus zum Weltkonzern (From Mickey Mouse to aglobal player). München: Heyne, Pages 264 ff.

[4]See Europapark.de (30.4.2018).

[5]Examples: Hansgrohe Kinderwasserwelt Lítill at Europapark, Baumberger Irrgarten (maze) at Phantasialand

[6]See Pine, B. Joseph, Gilmore, James H. (1999): The Experience Economy. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

[7] See Grötsch, Kurt (2002). Emotional Management and emotional Learning in theme parks. In: Nahrstedt, Wolfgang and others (2002a): Learning within theme parks. Perspektiven für Politik, Management und Wissenschaft. Bielefeld: IFKA, Pages 42-61.

[8] See Schulze, Gerhard (1993): Die Erlebnisgesellschaft. Kultursoziologie der Gegenwart (The event society. Cultural sociology of the present.) Frankfurt/M.: Campus.

[9] See Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2000). Das flow-Erlebnis (The flow effect). Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta

[10] See Freericks, Renate, u.a. (2005): Projekt Aquilo. Bremen IFKA, Pages 37 f.

[11] Example: Theme park Kulturinsel Einsiedel near Görlitz, Germany.

[12] See Heckmair, Bernd, Michl, Werner (1998): Erleben und Lernen. Einstieg in die Erlebnispädagogik (Learning and experiences. First steps into the experiential education arena). 3. Aufl. Neuwied.

[13] See. Kükelhaus, Hugo, Zur Lippe, Rudolf (1992): Erfahrungsfelder zur Entfaltung der Sinne (Exemplary fields to experience all the senses). Frankfurt/Main, Fischer-Taschenbuch.

[14] See. Nahrsted, Wolfgang. u. a. (2002). Lernort Erlebniswelt. Neue Formen informeller Bildung in der Wissensgesellschaft. (Learning place theme park. New ways of informal education in the knowledge-based society). Bielefeld: IFKA

[15] See Freericks, Renate, Brinkmann, Dieter, Theile, Heike (2017), Erlebnisbad 2030 (Waterpark 2030). Bremen: IFKA.

[16] See Caillois, Roger (1960). Die Spiele und die Menschen. Maske und Rausch (Games and human beings. Mask and ecstasy). Stuttgart: Schwab.

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