Today, PLAYTIME’s custom soft play areas can be found not just in malls across the world but also in airports, stadiums, restaurants, dentist offices and fitness centers. The company has completed 2,500 projects in more than 40 countries on five continents. PLAYTIME recently hosted a crew from the Denver Post, including writer Emilie Rusch and photographer Helen H. Richardson. Here is their story.
PLAYTIME creates whimsical play areas for kids worldwide
By Emilie Rusch, The Denver Post, Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Whether they’re engineering a bright orange pufferfish or a hollowed-out log, one thing remains the same at Playtime, the Douglas County-based maker of whimsical play areas for kids worldwide.
“Everything you see starts as a block of recycled styrofoam,” said Jeff Evans, the company’s director of business development.
For the last 17 years, Playtime has been transforming plain white styrofoam into dynamic kid-focused environments where active play and imagination are encouraged, if not required. They manufacture most everything in-house at their workshop, nicknamed Area 51½, near the Centennial Airport and a fiberglass shop in Commerce City.
“Nowadays, kids make a lot of decisions,” Evans said. “For Mom and Dad, if I’m taking them to a dentist office, rather than it being a family dentist that I’ve been going to since I was 5, that’s stuffy, what you would think of a dentist, what if we go in and there’s bright colors and fun things to do?”
Playtime’s latest project is a dinosaur-themed play area in the same place where it all began, the Cherry Creek Shopping Center.
Gone are the Looney Tunes characters that have greeted kids since 2010. In their place is a herd of dinosaurs native to Colorado, albeit millions of years ago — Triceratops, Ankylosaurus, even Tyrannosaurus.
It’s the museum’s first off-site exhibition for children. For Playtime, it’s the first time they’ve worked with a museum to create something so grounded in science.
“It was really an awesome challenge for us,” Evans said.
Playtime’s artists worked hand in hand with paleontologists and museum curators to create dinosaurs that were based in reality but still kid friendly.
“We even talked about things like feet,” said Scott Sampson, the museum’s vice president of research and collections, as well as host of the PBS Kids series “Dinosaur Train.” “A lot of these dinosaurs have little hooves that would point outward. The feet, for the record, ended up more rounded so little kids wouldn’t trip.”
Sophisticated 3-D modeling software allowed Playtime’s designers to sculpt the play pieces as if they were clay, tweaking the turn of the mouth, the texture and color at the touch of a screen.
Finished designs were then sent to Area 51½ to be carved out of styrofoam, molded into fiberglass, covered in soft foam, sprayed in a rubber coating and airbrush painted.
The result is a soft, climbable play area — with some fun scientific details many visitors may never notice, Sampson said. The leaves, for one, are modeled after fossilized specimens from the museum’s collections.
“With the trees and the plants and the animals, what we’ve done is created a very kid-friendly version of a late Cretaceous ecosystem that existed right here in Colorado 67 million years ago,” Sampson said. “If you had been standing right in the place of Cherry Creek Mall, Tyrannosaurus rex would have walked by on occasion.”
“We hope it engages kids in playing and getting excited about dinosaurs,” he said. “The goal of the museum is to get people excited about nature and the natural world and dinosaurs are part of that.”
Less cartoony play environments are growing in popularity, Evans said.
Southwest Plaza in Jefferson County, wrapping up a $75 million revitalization project, has also hired Playtime to build an indoor play area for the mall, a Colorado-themed wonderland that eschews the traditional shiny finish for a more matte look.
“A lot of our customers seem to be pushing that way,” Evans said. “It’s a lot of fun for us but there’s also some challenge to it, because there’s something very classic about prime colors.”
The shopping center industry, still the largest market for play areas, has also evolved in the years since Playtime was founded, creative director and co-founder Jonathan Norby said.
“It went from these play areas being rare and unique to suddenly becoming a requirement, where you’d actually have parents complaining if they didn’t have a playground,” Norby said. “It’s been great for us — it became a necessity — and it’s heading that way in Europe as well.”
Cherry Creek has had a play area for almost as long as the mall has been around, marketing director Dave Dixon said.
“It’s a great amenity for families, for moms and dads and grandparents when they come to the shopping center hoping to get some shopping done,” Dixon said. “It can serve as a respite for kids and parents to take a little break, let the kids work off some steam. It can work as an incentive: ‘Hey, hang with me a little longer and we can go play.’ ”
Each and every iteration of their play area has come from Playtime, a relationship that has grown to include other shopping centers owned by Taubman.
“They put out a great product,” Dixon said. “We’re always very pleased with their work and their very talented and creative team.”
All Photos Credit: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post