Published: July 13, 2003
ANYONE who has watched young children run through a lawn sprinkler knows the simple thrill of cool water on a hot day.
Put a dozen different sprayers in a colorful playground, though, and you get something far more exciting.
That is the magic of having a sprinkler park, perhaps the biggest thing to happen to playgrounds since someone put sand in a box.
Fairfield has a sprinkler park at Lake Mohegan, a life-guarded swimming hole with a short-order snack bar, an outdoor shower, a playground and nearby beach where dogs are allowed to run without a leash.
But splashing in the fountains is clearly the main event for anyone under 10 years old. On a recent sunny day, a sea monster was spitting water at a group of children. Palm trees were emitting heavy rains, and giant geysers were spouting from the ground.
For parents, the sprinkler park is an easy alternative to going swimming. Since there is no standing water, only low-key supervision is needed.
For towns, constructing a sprinkler park is far cheaper than building a pool.
Fairfield's sprinkler park was financed by Safe Parks and Recreation for Kids, or Spark, a volunteer group that raised $30,000 for the equipment and persuaded the town to have its crews install it.
Even with that cost included, the project was still well under $70,000, as compared with the roughly $4 million that a typical outdoor pool might cost. Plus, no lifeguards are needed at sprinkler parks, meaning far lower operating costs.
In Colchester, which has no community pool or beaches, a sprinkler park provides the focal point for a recreation center built last year.
''We installed it out of total desperation,'' said Wendy Rubin, director of the town's parks and recreation department, and former executive director of the Connecticut Recreation and Parks Association, a trade group. ''The park used to be empty in the summer and we were renting buses to take kids from our day camp to a fresh water pond.''
With the sprinkler park, everything has changed. ''Now the parking lot is full and we have people coming here from a long way away,'' she said.
The first sprinkler park anywhere may have been the one at the 1986 World Expo in Vancouver, British Columbia. One year later, Waterplay Manufacturing opened up shop in British Columbia and began designing and selling sprinkler park equipment. Most of the early sales were in California, although New York City -- and Waterbury -- installed their own in the early 1990's.
''It's like skate parks and everything else,'' Ms. Rubin said. ''These things start out in California, and then 10 years later, New England catches on.''
Catch on it did. About a dozen public sprinkler parks have appeared in the state in the last few years, with more coming soon. The target audience is children 2 to 8.
The parks are variously called splash pads, spray parks, spraygrounds and aquatic playgrounds, depending on which of the four companies now in the business manufactured the particular system.
Not surprisingly, the options offered by these companies keep getting more intricate.
''The most popular components now are the ones that offer interactivity,'' said Scott Broady of Vortex International, a company in Montreal that has probably installed more sprinkler parks in the state than anyone.
One feature, for example, consists of a flag pole surrounded by five ground sprays.
''If the children cooperate, using their hands, feet, or bodies to cover the sprays, the water is diverted up the pole,'' Mr. Broady said.
The pressure raises the flag and then releases a giant plume of water from the top of the pole.
There are also maneuverable water cannons shaped like blowfish; cosmic ray guns and fire hoses; balls that soak anyone who presses on them; and buckets that sit high above the ground and take on water until they are so full that they tip over and pour their contents onto the children.
Many sprinkler parks also include the element of surprise, by switching on the various nozzles in an impossible-to-predict order.
''The computer processor is similar to the ones used to control traffic lights,'' said Susan Baker, a marketing strategist for Waterplay.
Each time a child turns on the sprinkler park, the computer chooses randomly from as many as 20 different programmed cycles, she said.
That keeps the children on their toes, but the arrangement is actually a result of the need to conserve water.
Few sprinkler parks outside of drought-prone areas recirculate the water they use. To do so would require a water treatment system similar to the ones used for swimming pools, which raises the installation cost exponentially.
Some towns pipe the used water into storage tanks that supply irrigation systems, but most of them simply try to limit water usage.
Rather than running nonstop, for instance, the systems typically shut down unless a button is pushed by the children every few minutes. The seemingly random spray patterns ration water by limiting how many nozzles operate at any one time.
Which can only add to the excitement.
Photos: It's splish-splash time: at Lake Mohegan sprinkler park in Fairfield, children (and their parents) can romp through metal sculptures that spray cool water, be showered by giant palm trees, and get drenched by a looming sea monster. (Photographs by Thomas McDonald for The New York Times)