The oversize critters that prowl a trail off the Tennessee Riverwalk are in the process of giving their manufacturer a lead on the future of outdoor play spaces across the country.
Along the Riverpoint Play Trail, as it winds its way along Chickamauga Creek to the river, a dragonfly, a butterfly, a bee, spider and an ant -- in individual play pockets -- beckon to young visitors to stop and play.
"They were designed to mimic nature," Ruthie Thompson of Outdoor Chattanooga said of the September 2010 installations by Chattanooga-based PlayCore, a designer, manufacturer and marketer of commercial and consumer playground and park equipment, "and they were designed to engage kids with nature."
Now, an online survey sponsored by the manufacturer, in conjunction with a graduate student in North Carolina State University's College of Design, seeks to learn how children and families use the trail and its play pockets.
Such installations, said Lisa Moore, vice president of corporate strategic services for PlayCore, are "a whole new concept in play. They're play pockets along a linear space versus a more traditional playground structure."
The information on best practices has come, she said, through the company's three-year working relationship with North Carolina State and through a partnership with the American Trails organization.
Though PlayCore is gathering data from four locations, the Chattanooga installation was the "first prototype model," Moore said.
Adina Cox, the NC State graduate student conducting the survey, said getting children outdoors and interested in nature are the focus of the research.
"Certainly, trails are underused by children," she said. "The idea was to see if children could be encouraged to go outside by developing this concept [and] that they could move and be active along the trail."
Ron Priddy, director of parks and recreation for Hamilton County, said PlayCore donated the equipment and installed it ahead of the American Trails National Symposium in Chattanooga in 2010. Hamilton County, he said, provided the landscaping.
"I think it was a new product," he said, "and they wanted a place to put it."
Before the installation, Priddy said, most people didn't know the trail was there. And there was nothing of interest alongside it.
Since then, he said, "it's been well received. And it gives [parents] another playground option."
The play pockets were designed in the shape of actual creatures that might be seen alongside a creek.
Children can seesaw on a red dragonfly, climb through a bee's honeycomb, crawl across a spider web and shinny through an anthill. Fun facts at each stop add to the educational aspect of the installation.
"It gets kids out playing with its natural features," said Thompson.
The online survey asks, among other things, how often participants visit the park, the purpose of their visit, the mode of transportation used on the pathways, the length of visits, the benefits of the experience, the maintenance of the pathway, the safety and security of the trail, improvements that might be made, and the placement, spacing, shade, signage and seating of the play pockets.
"We're disseminating the footprint of other spaces across the country," Moore said.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...