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Exploring the Anna C. Verna Playground: the Design Story and Upcoming Events

by Meghan Talarowski on April 15, 2024

What makes a great place to play? That’s the question I asked when Fairmount Park Conservancy and WRT, the lead designers of the FDR Park Plan, asked Studio Ludo to partner with them to imagine the Anna C. Verna Playground, which opened in October 2023.

My name is Meghan Talarowski, and I am the founder and executive director of Studio Ludo: a Philadelphia-based nonprofit whose mission is building better play through research, design, and advocacy. We use our studies of play behavior, which include data on over 60,000 people in 100 different play environments, to inform our designs of more than 30 play spaces and counting!

People often ask what our most surprising findings are, and all our studies have shown the same thing: half of people in playgrounds are not children, but teens, adults, and seniors! Play does not stop after childhood, it just evolves. People are craving what play gives…freedom, connection, movement, and joy. We think outside of the 0-12 age range as defined by playground safety standards, and consider what a playground for different ages and abilities would look like.

That was our jumping off point for the design of the Anna C. Verna Playground. How do we design a space where people feel welcome, supported, and invited to play? The answer, it turned out, was to take some risks.

Risky play involves pushing ourselves to figure out what will happen when we don’t know an action’s exact outcome. Studies show it’s something that we are all wired to do. For some people, that means climbing high, moving fast, leaping, tumbling, roughhousing. For others, it takes another form of adventure or trying something new. Engaging in risky play lowers stress, encourages movement, and builds social connection. We specifically designed the Anna C. Verna Playground to embrace and support risky play so people of all ages can experience feelings of belonging, confidence, and exhilaration.

The central feature of the playground is the largest swing set in North America where 30 people can swing at the same time. It has five different types of swings, from infant seats to traditional belts to baskets that fit several people, to loungers with straps to secure those with limited mobility, to seesaw swings that make even the grownups shout “Woohoo”. 

With its incredible vistas over Pattison Lagoon and the vast mature tree canopy of FDR Park, the swing has been a huge attraction and a real community space. The swing was built for socializing, with seating and a picnic lawn in its center so those swinging and those just hanging out can connect with each other.

Plenty of other seats and tables are spread around the site along with a picnic pavilion. This allows visitors to have places to hang out and chat with friends, stay for a snack, or set up a party. 

Surrounding the swing and scattered across the playground are log scrambles and boulders for sitting, stepping, leaping, and perching. There are a variety of risk-taking opportunities.These natural elements offer open-ended play opportunities that invite users to engage together. The logs grow in size from tall scrambles to giant trees inside the treehouses and the treehouses themselves are designed for different body types and ability levels.

For those just dipping their toe into risky play, there is a small treehouse with a spiral net so adults and young kids can climb and slide together. The treehouse has a transfer system at the bottom, which allows those with physical disabilities to transfer in and have a tree climbing experience. The taller treehouses are linked off of an accessible bridge, but provide very different experiences. 

The shorter treehouse has internal nets that are intentionally a bit too small for most adults, so that kids and those with limited mobility or social anxiety can have a solo experience if they want.

The taller tower is reached primarily by a ladder that intentionally feels unstable. This provides the physical cue that you are about to experience the riskiest and tallest slide. But if you get to the top and it feels like too much, the spiral net is easy to navigate back down. This allows you to try again on a day you are feeling a bit braver.

There are small and large spinners, as well as 7 different slides ranging from 4 feet tall to 25 feet tall, so everyone has the opportunity to move fast at heights and speeds that feel comfortable to them. Some slides are reached via the treehouses, and some by rock scrambles that encourage even early walkers to navigate the risk of uneven surfaces. 

My favorite part of the playground by far, besides seeing it packed on even the coldest winter days, has been the cheers and shouts of support from the crowd as they encourage their family and friends (likely new friends made in the process) to try new things. 

The towers are intentionally transparent and covered in a fine mesh, which ensures climbers stay safe inside. People can feel the thrill of being up high while being visually connected to their surroundings and those on the ground. Whoops of laughter are coming from everyone, but especially those who brave their fears to tackle the tallest treehouse and slide. 

The mark of a great place to play are the stories, legends, and memories that come from it. When we think back on our fondest play memories, they were likely outside, with friends, doing something risky, and living to tell the tale. We were full of joy. We were vibrant and alive. And honestly, we all deserve the time, space, and permission to feel that way again. I’ll see you at the playground, listening for your “woohoo” after you try the slide.

Want to experience the Anna C. Verna Playground firsthand? Here are Fairmount Park Conservancy’s upcoming events at the playspace: 

We’ll be hosting a free family-friendly Swing into Spring celebration at the Anna C. Verna Playground at FDR Park on April 20 from 9:30 – 11:30 AM. Enjoy water ice, giveaways, and a concert by children’s music performers Two of a Kind.

This is just the beginning of the music pop-ups at the playground! There will be music-themed events from April to June. The dates and times are below. 

Storytime with the Free Library
Tuesday, May 7
9:30 — 11:30 a.m. 

Making Music with Mister John
Saturday, May 18
9:30 — 11:30 a.m. 

Making Music with Mister John
Tuesday, June 4
9:30 — 11:30 a.m. 

Movement and Melodies with Music Play Patrol
Saturday, June 15
9:30 — 11:30 a.m. 

Families are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and/or blankets. And while registration is not required, it is greatly appreciated!

Register for the spring kickoff event and learn more about the playground events.