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 co-founder 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.”