A well-planned, well-built playground can be an excellent complement to the classroom. Children learn important physical, intellectual, and social skills while playing. And studies have shown that the more interesting and varied the playground, the more a child will learn from it. No two children are alike, so ideally playgrounds should be as varied as the student body—designed for different ages, interests, and physical abilities.

Here are six ideas to make your school’s playground a fun and important extension of the classroom where children of all ages and abilities can thrive.

Create a Quiet Area

Some children can be overwhelmed by the chaos and noise on the playground. They shy away from climbing on monkey bars or maybe prefer reading a book to playing tag with the entire 3rd grade.

At Oakdale Elementary in Dedham, Mass., some parents knew their children preferred alone time or one-on-one play to large group activities. So the Oakdale PTO installed two picnic tables in a mulched area adjacent to the playground, creating an area to accommodate quiet play.

Children are required to sign up in advance and must bring an activity like a book or a board game out to the quiet area. This controls the number of students in the area at any one time and ensures the children are occupied and not idle while outside. On rainy days, an area near the gym is set aside as the quiet area.

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Incorporate Nature

Even if your school’s play area is surrounded by blacktop or in an urban setting, consider incorporating nature into the design. One trend is for playgrounds to reflect the days when children played freely in their backyards, the woods, or open fields.

Mary Sweeney, a parent and PTO member at Francis Wyman Elementary in Burlington, Mass., helped organize a renovation to an existing playground at her children’s school. She worked with a company that specializes in combining landscape elements like plants, stone walls, sand pits, park benches, and berms with play structures to create play areas that are both physically challenging and intellectually stimulating.

Sweeney had several difficulties to overcome for the playground renovation. It needed to incorporate a steep slope with poor drainage. It had to accommodate a very large student body; the playground is used by more than 600 students plus community after-school programs. And it needed to be accessible to physically disabled and special needs students. “We wanted to build a playground that was inclusive, had texture and paths, and was also physically challenging,” Sweeney says.

In addition to play equipment, the resulting area features boulders, trees, grassy paths, and a gazebo to create an attractive schoolyard. One popular spot is the sensory table. “Our principal collects sea shells and often brings them out to the sensory table for the kids to play with,” Sweeney says.

Think Beyond Accessibility

Today’s playgrounds can seamlessly appeal to children with varying abilities. The Francis Wyman Elementary playground integrates disabled children into the main play area rather than segregating them into one section of the schoolyard. “Instead of one little area, we have paths to all of the equipment so students in wheelchairs can self-propel,” Sweeney says. “Our equipment is inclusive. For example, the sand play area has a raised table [to accommodate the height of a wheelchair].”

Len Saunders, a physical education teacher at Valley View Elementary in Montville, N.J., and author of the book series An Adventure in Exercise, says it doesn’t take much to create an accessible play area that not only accommodates varying physical ability but also caters to a variety of preferences.

“I have issues when playgrounds only have steps,” Saunders says. “Add ramps or even pulley systems so kids who have a harder time getting up there can experience what it’s like to be up high. [Placing] grab bars up high also helps children to walk to higher levels.”

Likewise, don’t put all the fun stuff high off the ground. “Add items at lower levels as well as higher levels,” he says. “A lot of playgrounds have monkey bars up so high. Make them closer to the ground.” He points out that some kids are afraid to climb high, and lower-level activities take the pressure off for children who are afraid or hesitant.

Stimulate the Senses

Says Saunders, “I like to see a lot of tactile things [in a playground]. I am a firm believer that cognitive skills and physical skills should work together. They enhance each other and work side by side.” For example, Saunders says obstacle courses and crawling tunnels promote both agility and critical thinking skills.

The sensory table and seashells at Francis Wyman Elementary are other examples of how a playground can factor in cognitive learning, not just physical activity. Saunders suggests adding game tables for tic-tac-toe and chess, or water tables and fish tanks that help stretch a child’s imagination.

Encourage Dramatic Play

Dramatic play, the act of “pretending,” is an important part of a child’s learning process. While to an adult a play structure is always a play structure, to a child it might become a spaceship one day and a submarine the next. It’s important to include areas where such free play can take place.

“We really see a tremendous value in imagination play being a complement to the traditional post-and-platform playground,” says David Flanigan, director of operations for program management for KaBoom, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to creating play spaces.

KaBoom playgrounds incorporate murals, sandboxes, herb gardens, and gardens for tree plantings. Children can reinforce classroom skills and participate in an ever-changing playground landscape when they have access to planting as part of their play area, Flanigan says.

Consider Programming

While encouraging imaginative play is important, one growing trend is to create organized playground activities run by adults. Scavenger hunts, nature walks, and directed games that promote problem-solving and teamwork can all help make a playground fun. Having a teacher or parent volunteer take an active role in organizing playground games can help promote playground safety and improve behavior.


More Ways To Play

Adding on to your playground? Think about these features.

Places to climb: Climbing walls have long been a favorite with kids. Now climbing structures made of high-tension net are popping up at playgrounds.

Slides: Slides are among the best-used areas of playgrounds. Some kids love spiral slides, while others enjoy faster straight slides.

Almost natural: Many playgrounds now feature synthetic boulders, logs, tree houses, and fossils that look like the real thing but are considered safer and easier to maintain.

Quiet spaces: Plastic domes and sensory walls let kids have fun while staying away from the noisiest areas of the playground.