Splish! splash! Kids movin' and a groovin' in Tampa Bay area parks

City parks have come a long way in the last decade.

Many feature elaborate dog parks with sprawling patches of enclosed turf just for Fido. Park-goers in downtown Tampa now have free WiFi access. The city is even sprucing up local parks by planting a colorful mix of wildflowers in various locations.

But perhaps the biggest innovation to hit area parks is the advent of splash pads. Long gone are simple playground structures like stand-alone swing sets and basic jungle gyms. Instead, interactive “spraygrounds” are quickly becoming the norm.

“The one at Water Works Park has been a magnet for children since the moment we cut the ribbon on it,” says Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “They can play on the swing set, run around, get hot and sweaty, and then cool off in the splash pad.”

The Water Works Park splash pad doesn’t stand alone. In addition to the one at Ballast Point Park in south Tampa, others are popping up all over Pinellas County. The Kiwanis Sprayground in Dunedin is packed every weekend. The city of Tarpon Springs in north Pinellas also unveiled a massive interactive splash park back in June. 

“It’s great when trying to entertain kids of different ages,” says Heather Keener, a Clearwater resident who frequently takes her 11-month-old son to the splash pad in Dunedin. “My baby and my friend’s 5-year-olds all enjoy the same place.”

Like many parents, Keener specifically enjoys the splash pad’s proximity to the regular playground. She often lets the baby explore the pad’s different water-spraying elements before pushing him on the swing or taking a snack break at a nearby picnic table. The ability to bounce around between activities is especially appealing. Another draw is that spraygrounds represent a local, free activity for families.

Bonus: A Great Equalizer

According to Buckhorn, installing a splash pad comes with many benefits. For starters, it’s much more cost efficient than building and maintaining a pool. Another perk is that they encourage cultural diversity, creating a space where children of all socioeconomic backgrounds can come together to play. The mayor estimates that at least half of the kids frequenting the splash pad at Water Works Park are coming from North Boulevard Homes, a nearby public housing complex.
“A splash pad is a great equalizer,” says Buckhorn.

When it comes to creating a successful sprayground, certain elements are crucial. Weller Pools, based in Apopka, is no stranger to designing interactive splash pads. In fact, the company worked on the team that got the one in Water Works Park off the ground. According to John Tuhela, President of Weller Pools, families are particularly drawn to the vertical spray elements and bright, colorful water fixtures that have come to characterize spraygrounds. The one in Water Works Park touts 64-gallon dumping buckets sure to cool off any kid working up a sweat.

“If you give a child a garden hose, he can play all day long,” says Tuhela. “And that’s the concept here. And for the parents’ sake, there’s no standing water.”

More Fun And Safer Too

This last detail, according to Tuhela, nearly eliminates the risk of drowning. Most splash pads also feature shaded areas from which parents can comfortably supervise their little ones. Tuhela says that all these features have made traditional wading pools a thing of the past.

“I would go as far as to bet you that probably less than 5 percent of the new developments that are going in right now, whether it’s private or whether it’s public, actually incorporate wading pools,” says Tuhela.

These outdated fixtures are swiftly being replaced by interactive water splash pads – and the trend shows no sign of slowing down.

Buckhorn, who used one of Water Works Park’s 64-gallon buckets to complete the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, says that residents can expect to see more splash pads popping up around town (as well as more bike lanes). His office is also focusing a great deal of attention on redesigning Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, a nearly 25-acre space located on the Hillsborough River.

“It’s been a vastly underutilized, unsafe park for a long time largely because no one ever thought that development would leap the river to the west bank,” says Buckhorn.

According to the mayor, he and his team are actively reaching out to neighborhood residents to discuss what they would like to see at Julian B. Lane. Buckhorn’s main focus is figuring out a way to best take advantage of the waterfront, which is easily the park’s biggest source of potential.

“[H]ow do you activate it with walking trails, exercise stations and athletic fields?” says Buckhorn. “For everyone from little kids to seniors; how do we turn it into a destination waterfront-focused park?” 

In the meantime, Tampa Bay residents have no shortage of spraygrounds to pass the time.

Marianne Hayes is a writer, wife, mother and bookworm in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. You can read about her adventures in motherhood on her blog, With Kids in Hand. Twitter: @HayesMarianne. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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