Installing a new playground can be a major undertaking, especially in these times of tight budgets. If you’re concerned about the cost or volunteer time and energy required for a full-scale playground project, take heart. Chances are you can greatly help your school through smaller, less expensive, and less time-consuming playground improvements.

Adding a single play structure can increase a playground’s appeal to students. There are plenty of single-day projects that can improve a playground’s appearance or make it more functional. With some planning, determination, and hard work, any PTO can help create a playground that looks great, promotes physical fitness, and is fun to play on, too.

Deciding What To Do

So if your PTO can only make a small renovation, how do you figure out which one is right for your school? Start by taking a close look at what your playground currently has and what it lacks in terms of variety, advises Bethe Almeras, education and outreach director at Head Start Body Start National Center for Physical Development and Outdoor Play.

“What you want to offer are a variety of experiences and places for children to engage in group play and individual play,” she says.

All the tools you need for a well-planned playground project

The goal should be to provide a space for children to enjoy vigorous exercise and creative expression, organized games and unstructured play. A playground renovation should add or improve an area that currently is lacking.

Observing students at recess can help you determine what your playground is missing. Are students standing around waiting for a turn on the swings? Then adding a swing set might make sense. Are teachers dragging out chairs from the classroom? Then installing benches might be a welcome change. Solicit input from the teachers, parents, and students—find out what the school community wants and needs from its playground.

If a playground has a lot of equipment but no natural elements, consider adding plantings around equipment or placing logs and stumps children can play on, Almeras suggests. If there’s not enough open space for running and gross motor skill activity, look for ways to create that space. To encourage creative expression, you might build an outdoor music and dramatic arts area with a stage, a marimba, and drums.

For relatively low cost, a parent group can invest in “loose parts” that children can play with outside such as balls, hoops, and wheeled toys. These give kids more choices of activities at recess and may also be able to be used in physical education classes.

Don’t be discouraged if your group can’t attempt a full-scale renovation. There is still plenty a parent group can do to improve a school’s play area, says Tim Barrett, business and development specialist for Landscape Structures, a Minnesota-based company that designs, manufactures, and installs playground equipment.

“No matter the space or budget, adding at least some play equipment to a school outside area will always be welcomed by kids. They just want to play and engage,” Barrett says.

Whether your playground project is large or small, you’ll need to consider the same factors: the space available, how much you can spend, and the students who will play there. Barrett advises PTOs to determine the budget and available space first. Budget considerations include surfacing, installation, freight and site preparation, and equipment costs.

Having separate equipment for the youngest children (kindergarten and preK) is always preferable. If your school doesn’t have a separate playground, at least try to create a separate section for young kids. The problem with a combined elementary school playground is that if it is safe enough for a 5-year-old, it won’t be challenging enough for an 11-year-old.

For the youngest students, install components that encourage imagination, such as storefront panels (where kids can set up an imaginary shop) and talking tubes. Older students like equipment that allows them to climb and jump constantly. Spinning components and rope climbers are good for these children.

It’s important to include play areas that special-needs children can use. These should be incorporated into the playground so that these students can play together with their classmates rather than feeling separated and excluded.

Take It in Phases

Many schools opt to redo their playgrounds in phases. This allows kids to continue to play while part of the playground is being renovated, and it lets parent groups tackle projects that would be too expensive to take on all at once. It can also help build enthusiasm among the school community.

“When you can plan out and install play components in phases, kids will engage and be just as excited with each new phase,” Barrett says. “As excitement builds, so will donors wanting to make it even bigger.”

The PTO at Heights Elementary in Sharon, Mass., has made changes to its playground over the course of three years. Parents first focused on play structures for the school’s students in 1st through 5th grades. Then they worked on a smaller playground for the school’s kindergarten classes. The final piece of the main playground was a much smaller addition, a single whirligig play structure.

The whirligig was a good fit for the playground’s available space and budget. The price tag, around $2,000, was minor compared with what the PTO had already invested in the playground. It also added a new way for students to play.

The whirligig was dedicated to a father on the playground planning committee who had recently lost his battle with cancer. “The family picked it, and we didn’t have space for much else,” says PTO chairwoman Veronica Wiseman. “The whirligig was so different from the other equipment already there—it was a good addition.”

Volunteers installed the equipment over Father’s Day weekend in 2010.

Make Small Changes

Playground improvements can also take the form of small projects that can be done by a handful of volunteers in a few hours, says Michael Hammerstrom, senior client services coordinator at Kaboom, a national nonprofit that promotes playgrounds and healthy play.

“Side projects such as building benches for seating and planting trees for shade are great enhancements to a play place and can be done for very little money,” Hammerstrom says. “There are also side projects meant for kids, such as kid-sized picnic tables and asphalt games.”

The following are some smaller side projects that Kaboom recommends. With some of these projects, elementary students can help complete the work, promoting community service and giving them a sense of pride in and ownership of their school. Instructions for these projects are available on the group’s website, www.kaboom.org.

Creative Play

  • Build a stage for students to perform their own shows.
  • Install an outdoor chalkboard for drawing or tic-tac-toe games.

Just Add Paint

  • Paint a hopscotch board on a cement or asphalt surface.
  • Spruce up an outdoor basketball court by marking off the foul lane and three-point line with paint. You can add a team mascot for a little school spirit.
  • Paint murals on walls near the playground. These can be instructional (a world map, for example), and students can work with adults in creating the murals. This might be a good project if your playground space is limited.
  • If you have a picnic table on your playground, you can add some fun and color by painting a chessboard on top of it.

Standalone Structures

  • Add a climbing wall or other standalone piece of equipment.
  • Build a wooden sandbox. This is particularly good if your playground lacks activities for the youngest children. Make sure to include a lid to keep the sand clean.

Improvement Projects

  • Install stepping stones or flower planters. Such touches can add some visual appeal to a school’s playground.
  • Create a community bulletin board. This can be useful if your school is a community hub or if the playground is used after hours.
  • Create cubbies for students to store their belongings while they are playing. Teachers may welcome this if the playground isn’t close to the classroom.
  • Build shade structures. This is particularly helpful if hot weather makes outdoor play problematic at your school.