Play powered by Dynamo: Tapping dynamic design energy
Ontario company exports innovative playground experiences to 50 countries.
Richard Martin is a man of many metaphors. He likes to speak in pictures and this is fitting, because he is a visionary. It’s this type of creative thinking that fuels the growth and success of Dynamo Playgrounds, an innovative play structure manufacturer.
Martin knows playgrounds. In 1993 he worked for a school board, maintaining and repairing the structures to keep them safe and enjoyable for local children. He noticed that school boards, municipalities and community organizations were investing a lot of money in these playgrounds, but there wasn’t much to them.
“They were all post and deck,” he explains. “It’s hard to justify play value when it’s always the same thing: a slide, some swings, maybe a fireman’s pole – there was no new and exciting equipment.”
Martin started to think about ways playgrounds could attract and appeal to all children, of every age and ability. Growing up with a disabled brother made him realize the limitations of traditional equipment. And while modern playgrounds were becoming increasingly accessible to children with physical challenges, they weren’t allowing handicapped kids to fully integrate into the play.
“You could roll them up onto the play structure in their wheelchair, park them in front of a steering wheel, lock the wheels of the chair and say: ‘There. Now watch the other kids play.’ ”
There are also many different levels of physical disability. How do you design a playground to not only accommodate but also engage every child? Martin feels that everyone deserves to experience the sensation and motion.
The traditional Canadian playground structure is intended for children 5 to 12 years old. That’s quite a span when you are trying to keep kids entertained and physically active. Martin decided to do some research into how playgrounds are designed in other parts of the world, such as Europe. He made some interesting discoveries, was inspired to create some new pieces and in 1997 he found himself going into business as a maker of playground equipment. But he encountered some challenges right from the start.
Canadian playground standards have changed considerably over the past few decades, with a targeted focus on safety as opposed to functionality or entertainment value. For a while, Martin says, every municipality and school board was removing spinning equipment. Kids were spinning too fast, flying off and hurting themselves. He wanted to create spinning equipment that would be attractive and appealing to all ages, but safe enough for someone in a wheelchair to enjoy.
Aiming for fun
Martin did his research and due diligence, and brought his vision to life. When people saw the equipment in action, they were converted. But he had to jump through a lot of hoops – a metaphor he might use himself – to turn naysayers into believers.
Every piece of playground equipment Martin invented pushed the limits. He wanted to prove he could make equipment that was fun and safe – including a spinner that stood 13 feet off the ground.
As Martin continued to challenge and push the envelope, standards began to change. Dynamo built up a portfolio and became a manufacturer. Outsourcing was necessary during the first stage of the company’s growth, but Martin always held the IP on design.
“It’s difficult to maintain a playground business in the Canadian winter, however,” he explains.
In 2000 the company branched out to Florida, and California. Martin continued to design, invent and innovate. His playground games invited children with physical disabilities to safely join right in to play beside their friends. Older children were enticed to put down their screens and devices and wander back outside to try out the cool new equipment at the park. The appeal couldn’t be denied, and this factor helped Martin and Dynamo to overcome obstacles, break down the barriers and pave the way for innovation in the playground industry.
By May 2015, Dynamo was ready to purchase its first building. After two and a half years of steady work, Martin made the investment to become a full-fledged manufacturer.
Here’s how the Dynamo playground comes together. First, a member of the manufacturing team develops a relationship with the client. They learn what’s wanted and needed for the park project, and bring it back to the designers. Designs are put through the proper procedures to comply with worldwide safety standards. Then the drawings go to the engineering department. Once approved, they’re sent to production.
Dynamo uses a CNC machine in the design and fabrication of its playground elements. The drill, saw or lathe is guided by computer, which delivers a more accurate cut to ensure a well-made, safe piece of equipment.
On high custom projects, Dynamo offers setup. They will fly all over the world and help guide the local contractors through the setup. Many of the items within the unique Dynamo portfolio, such as the Biggo Swings, Quad Pods, and Appollo equipment, are kept in their regular inventory. These day-to-day items are sold on a regular basis and have all passed the test of enduring quality, appeal and safety.
Dynamo operates out of 27,000 square feet of manufacturing space next to their sales office in Plantagenet, Ont. Martin is extremely proud of his company and passionate about the contribution his playground equipment is making to improve play for the younger generation.
The playgrounds leave a great deal to the imagination. Upon entering a park full of colourful, interlocking pieces of bars, ropes, tunnels and platforms, one child might see a mountain to climb. Another sees a cave. Some pieces resemble a giant spider or the crow’s nest of a ship. The playground offers a different setting on each visit, with endless opportunities to balance, swing, climb, dangle and jump.
Martin explains there isn’t much competition at his level. Most playground manufacturers are giants of the industry. He likes that he can inspire and set an example for other innovators.
“They can see what we have achieved. It’s possible to build equipment that high that’s still safe. And a 40-pound swing can have less impact than a three-pound traditional belt swing seat.”
Dynamo has kids’ best interests in mind, with every design it brings to life. Martin says the company is known for its unique products, including the tallest pyramid net in the world.
“We build the games and let the children decide how high they should go.”
Martin has obtained voting rights on North American safety standards boards because he feels it’s important “to open the doors to innovation.”
Dynamo is experiencing, one might say, dynamic growth. Since Martin designed his first piece of equipment, the company has blossomed organically, through trial and error, challenge and success. Staff has grown from 18 employees “practically overnight” to 50 designers, welders, engineers, sand blasters and painters. They do their own crating. The products leave the factory finished and ready for assembly on site.
The company is now growing steadily at a rate of 20% to 30%, exporting to 50 countries including New Zealand, Australia, Europe, Chile and the United Arab Emirates.
“We learn as we go. We are now an $8 million company. In five years, we see ourselves as a $20 million company,” Martin says.
Dynamo’s custom designed ropes courses are sought after, such as a $5 million project recently installed in a Las Vegas resort.
“We are grabbing people’s attention with what we can do,” Martin says.
Exciting new games appeal to resorts with a focus on families, where guests appreciate having something fun and safe for their kids to do.
The traditional playground client base would be school boards and municipalities, so the landscape architect is typically the first person who is introduced to the Dynamo designs. A member of the design team travels to the intended site and draws up a plan for equipment. The landscape architect is coached on the use, unique aspects and key safety features of each ride or game. Once they fully understand how the equipment is designed to be used safely, they can help to sell others on the vision.
“Just the unique look of our playground equipment attracts them,” Martin explains, “but they need to understand how they work.”
A quick run through of the company website offers a glimpse of the world they’re creating for today’s children. If you like what you see, you can click on the “let’s start building” link. This page provides a step-by-step guide to help you decide what sort of playground structure would be best in your school, venue or community.
With equipment like the Quad Pod, where older kids climb aboard, buckle in and spin in opposite directions, to the Ovni Swing, which accommodates multiple users, Dynamo will soon have adults sneaking off to take turns on the playground.
Diana Fisher is a freelance writer from Oxford Mills, Ont. Visit www.dianafisherbooks.com.
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 print issue of PLANT Magazine.