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6 Keys for Playground Design


Keep these important topics in mind when planning a playground to make sure the result is a space where children can have fun and be safe.

by Craig Bystrynski


You might think of your school’s playground as a single thing. It’s that one contained area where kids go to climb and slide and swing. A great place for a play date.

Kids think something entirely different. To children, a playground becomes a fort or a jungle or an obstacle course or a race track. It serves as a stage and a game space. It’s a place of fun and imagination.

Experts in child development see a place where children build a broad range of physical and emotional skills. Age-appropriate equipment provides important opportunities to develop motor skills, physical fitness, social interaction, and much more.

Building a great playground involves combining those ideas to create a single, integrated space that kids will love and that will aid their development. Complex, yes, but part of the magic of playgrounds is that those aspects do go together well.

Here are six points you should know about playgrounds. These are some of the latest topics and trends that experts use and you can, too, to make your school’s playground a great place for kids.

1. The Value of Free Play

Kids today have choices. Soccer, gymnastics, music lessons, after-school clubs, tee ball, craft classes, computer games, DVDs, and 76 channels on TV. Where does the playground fit it?

“It still absolutely amazes me that adults think the best experiences for children are ones directed entirely by adults,” says Jean Schappet, creative director and cofounder of Boundless Playgrounds. Boundless is a nonprofit group that works with communities to build playgrounds that are fully accessible and integrated for children of all ability levels.

When kids play together without adult intervention, they become spontaneous and creative. Organized activities generally don’t provide the opportunity to pretend, and they don’t allow kids to express themselves freely.

Playgrounds promote free play. Free play builds social skills, confidence, and self-esteem. Studies also suggests it stimulates brain development. As children’s schedules fill up with activities, the free play opportunities provided by playgrounds become more important.

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

2. Kid Stuff

How do you make sure your playground promotes free play? Start by adjusting your perspective.

Playground companies can offer detailed of information on which pieces of equipment develop which skills. Rockers increase balance, swings help with balance and coordination, horizontal (overhead) ladders build upper body strength and coordination. Each piece is appropriate for a certain age, meaning you’ll want an assortment geared to the grades your school serves. In addition, you’ll have lots of decisions to make about size, safety, and cost.

It’s important to keep these issues in mind. They encourage skills children need. But there’s another equally important issue: What do they want? The answer isn’t what you think. It’s not slides or swings or equipment of any kind.

“All children want three things, “ says Schappet. “All children want to do fun things. All children want to be in interesting places. All children want to be in the middle of play.” Children don’t go to playgrounds to build their motor skills; they go to have fun. Is the playground fun? “When you’re designing a playground, it’s absolutely the last thing that comes up on an adult’s radar,” says Schappet.

3. Young Designers

Playgrounds tend to be better loved by children when children are involved in the design process. That may seem obvious, but it’s not uncommon to see pieces of equipment that seemed exciting to the adults get little attention from kids.

KaBOOM! is a nonprofit organization that has built more than 400 playgrounds and renovated 1,500 more. When KaBOOM! participates in a playground design, the organization asks kids to draw pictures of what they want. Sometimes the ideas are too far out to implement, but often they are things that can be integrated into the design.

“It’s interesting how you can absolutely find themes,” says Kate Becker, national director of project management for KaBOOM! Sometimes the themes come from what the area doesn’t have. Nearby parks might not have swings, for instance, or slides. Kids often include those in their drawings. Color themes are common, too, and KaBOOM! incorporates them into the playground as well.

The process is not a gimmick; it really works, says Becker. “I think it leads to more creative designs, it leads to a playground that’s used more, and it leads to a place that’s going to be vandalized less.”

4. Beyond Accessibility

New playgrounds must be accessible to children with handicaps. Likewise, if your school significantly renovates or enhances its playground, the playground must be made accessible. The trend now, however, is toward playgrounds that are not merely accessible but also inclusive. These playgrounds allow children with disabilities to participate on an equal level with all children.

The value of free play extends to all children, even those who are impaired, says Schappet. “We remove architectural barriers that would impede children with developmental disabilities.” Boundless Playgrounds estimates that in most communities one child out of 10 has a disability that excludes him from really playing on traditional play structures.

Truly inclusive playgrounds create alternate routes for handicapped children. For example, a ramp might run parallel to a climbing activity or a piece that requires kids to use their upper body. One of the most popular pastimes for children is a running, tagging, chasing game, says Schappet. When they play this game, they’re collaborating and competing. Providing alternate routes allows all children to participate.

One child might go up two ramps and through a platform, while another uses the horizontal ladder to get to the same place, for example. Or one child might get a head start. “They figure out how to make it a fair race,” says Schappet. What they’re doing is making an ethical choice. The children are comparing their abilities to go fast, for example.

Boundless Playgrounds purchases prefabricated components from commercial playground equipment manufacturers. The equipment isn’t unique; it’s how it’s put together. “What is novel about this is the assembly of the components,” says Schappet. “It starts with a commitment to having play for all children.”

5. Highs and Lows

Falls to the surface cause 70 percent of all playground injuries. Safety concerns and fear of lawsuits has created a long-standing trend toward lower play structures. But now there’s growing recognition that providing a variety of levels, both high and low, plays an important developmental role.

“Completely changing a vista changes a child’s perspective on the world,” says Schappet. “When children are denied the opportunity of seeing their world from different vantage points, it limits their ability to piece together how things work.”

Higher isn’t better, but a variety of heights is an important feature of a good play structure. The National Program for Playground Safety recommends that equipment for school-age children be no higher than 8 feet and for pre-school children no higher than 6 feet. Also, it’s crucial to have a safe, well maintained surface that is appropriate for the height of the equipment.

6. Safety: The Next Step

The safety of playground equipment and surfaces has increased dramatically from the days when a typical play structure consisted of a set of monkey bars over hard-packed dirt. But safety isn’t a passive issue, one that the manufacturer takes care of and the school doesn’t need to worry about.

Director Donna Thompson says the National Program for Playground Safety advocates a four-point plan called SAFE: Supervision, Age-appropriate design, Fall surfacing (surfaces deemed safe for falls), and Equipment and surface maintenance.

One part that often gets left out, says Thompson, is supervision. Forty percent of all playground injuries stem from lack of or inappropriate supervision, she says. “When you increase supervision and training, the number of injuries goes down significantly.”

Supervision doesn’t mean a couple of parents or teachers chatting with each other while the children play. Playground supervisors need to pay attention and intercede when play becomes dangerous. Thompson recommends that schools provide the same ratio of supervision on the playground as indoors. In other words, if the class size is one teacher to 20 students, then one supervisor should be available on the playground for each 20 students. Because of staffing issues, she notes, principals have been slow to embrace this recommendation.

The National Program for Playground Safety offers a training program for playground supervisors.

The Fun Stuff

What equipment is popular with children? Here are some trends shared by Kate Becker, national director of project management for KaBOOM!

Horizontal ladders: “Ladders” that are parallel to the ground and high enough that a child’s feet don’t touch the ground when he uses his arms to move from one rung to the next. Ladders might be straight or curved.

Climbing walls: Walls with variously shaped protrusions to grab onto and use as footholds. “These are extremely popular,” says Becker.

Monorails: Children hang on with their arms and slide from one end to the other.

Crow’s nests (lookout towers): A high point to which children can climb, often with some type of telescope or other viewing piece inside.

Spiral slides: Curves make them novel and interesting.

Racing slides: Two or three slides built side by side. Children start at the same time and “race” down.

Originally posted in 2003 and updated regularly.


# bob 2008-02-07 09:49
sounds fun
# gena Andrews 2008-03-26 19:37
I would like more information on the Kaboom playgrounds. Do you have a catalog OR a consultant who would come down and assess our facilities and advise us? Our School is a k-12 school in Havelock, N.C.
# Kathryn Lagden from PTO Today 2008-03-27 09:59
Hi Gena - I'm sure the folks at Kaboom can help. Their website is
# Erin 2008-11-19 03:54
Have you heard of a growing trend for schools to not endorse playstructures due to the fear of injuries/litigation? Our school board seems to be very reluctant to provide anything other than basketball nets after they took down the old equipment.
# Niven 2013-09-03 11:20
Hi I want to learn how close I can built a play ground for children to some one else's residential home?what is the rules are , how far has to be from residential homes?
# Kristi 2013-09-25 18:52
Hello and thanks for the great article. Can you please direct me where I might find references for some of the statements made in your article? It would helpful for our fundraising, grant writing, etc...

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