Dennis Smiddle

Dennis Smiddle, owner of Fans of Play, worked with children of World of Wonder in Canonsburg to build raised garden beds. 

Dennis Smiddle, owner of a playground maintenance company, Fans of Play, recently started a nonprofit called Fans 4 Help.

The nonprofit, which advocates for more natural and open playground spaces, will seek grants to fund the design and installation of those types of playgrounds in school districts and community parks.

“One of the best ways for children to learn is through play,” Smiddle said. “There’s a mindset that play is all about playground equipment, but that’s structured play – it can only really do what it was designed to do. There’s a lot more to play than swinging, sliding and climbing.”

According to Smiddle, a retired state inspector of child care facilities and playgrounds, children need access to playtime in more natural environments, “where kids can get outside in open spaces and make up their own games and use their imagination.”

Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, more open spaces on playgrounds make more sense, Smiddle said. He said traditional playgrounds with slides and swings and climbing areas are difficult to maintain and keep sanitized.

“Every playground has a capacity,” he said. “It’s very difficult to social distance on a playground.”

The nonprofit will offer design services, consultations and playground products that meet the mission of his company, like raised-bed gardens, sandboxes and balance beams. In the name of the nonprofit, “Fans” stands for fitness, art, nature and science, while “Help” stands for health, environment, learning and play, Smiddle said.

“It’s more of an empowering concept,” he said. “People can design their own playgrounds, where you don’t have to rely on these big playground companies.”

Smiddle said school districts and municipalities typically purchase playground equipment through catalogs because “it’s easy,” and because people don’t realize other options are available. However, he said the concepts he uses are safer for children, more cost effective and they “reduce liability.”

“I’m hoping to get funding and build awareness so that communities can start to change the playground mindset to a more natural concept to help protect children and provide more beneficial playground opportunities for learning and play,” he said.

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