Children on a playground shaped like a school bus

Alum’s Business Is (Literally) Just Child’s Play

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Richard Hagelberg ’69 runs an Indiana-based company that makes swings, slides, monkey bars, and more

By Melissa Newcomb

In the early 1980s, Richard Hagelberg ’69 looked at a few thin catalogs and saw an opportunity. Then running three childcare centers in northwest Indiana, Hagelberg was in the market for some vital infrastructure. But there wasn’t much available, and prices were high.

So he teamed up with a friend to launch a business—one that’s still thriving more than four decades later.

Richard Hagelberg smiles for a photo while standing on one of his colorful playgrounds

“Never in my wildest imagination,” Hagelberg admits, “did I think I’d end up making playgrounds.”

The CALS alum is the cofounder and CEO of Kidstuff Playsystems, an Indiana-based company that designs, manufactures, and sells play equipment to parks and schools around the world.

Originally made from wood—his cofounder is a carpenter—the structures now comprise brightly colored steel and plastic in a variety of styles and features, including wheelchair-accessible designs.

“We make traditional equipment that is safe, functional, and affordable,” says Hagelberg, who notes with a laugh that his wife is nudging him toward retirement. “We want the creativity and play in the hands of the kids.”

The systems range in cost from around $15,000 for a small playground to $300,000 for a setup that can accommodate an entire school.

The structures are made locally in Indiana, where the business—which is certified by the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association—sells about 350 playgrounds annually and employs some 30 people.

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We want the creativity and play in the hands of the kids.

Hagelberg’s equipment is enjoyed by kids throughout the U.S. and as far away as the U.K., Japan, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia.

The systems are generally geared toward children ages two through 12, with elements available for various stages of development: tunnels and ladders, climbing walls and spiral slides, monkey bars and tire swings—even kaleidoscopes.

Some of the structures have whimsical shapes, like school buses, castles, fire engines, and pirate ships.

And for the littlest kiddos, there are interactive educational features like revolving cubes emblazoned with numbers, letters, U.S. states, and more.

“Our playgrounds provide a chance for kids to try things that are a little scary, in a non-threatening situation,” says Hagelberg. “Part of growing up is learning to take risks.”

(All photos provided.)

Published May 20, 2024

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