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Planning Your Playground


Building or renovating a playground may be the biggest single project your PTO undertakes. We walk you through the 19 essential steps to success.

by Craig Bystrynski


Building a new playground can be an exciting yet daunting project. You may wonder how you’ll ever pull it off. But many parent groups have done it, even starting with minimal resources. With strong organization, you can succeed. These tips will help you get started.

Start with the end in mind. Deciding up-front what you want to accomplish will help guide your decisionmaking. It will also help the equipment company or playground installer you team with give you better advice. Will your playground be open only during school hours, or will it be available to the neighborhood? Do you have special requirements for accessibility? Environmental friendliness? Do you have a special theme you would like to follow? Creating a kind of mission statement for your playground, or at least a list of goals, will give you a strong base on which to organize your project.

Create a timeline. A good estimate for a typical project is six to nine months from the start of planning until installation, not including fundraising. You’ll need to gather information, assess the location you have in mind, choose your equipment, plan out your design, and more. To do this right takes time. Depending on the size of the project, it can be done more quickly—sometimes even in a matter of weeks. But you’re better off taking your time and making decisions for the long term. After all, if you do your work right, your playground will be there for many years.

Assess your location. You’ll need enough room to extend the safety surface 6 feet around the play equipment—possibly farther for swings and slides. Good drainage is essential. Installation experts recommend a slope of 1 percent to 4 percent (or 1 to 4 feet of rise for every 100 linear feet). Building on a dense soil like clay will most likely lead to drainage problems. Avoid windy areas with a lot of dust. Assess traffic patterns and other man-made and natural features that will affect your playground.

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

Don’t make price your first priority. The playground equipment company you choose will be doing a lot more than providing play structures. You probably will be relying on their expertise throughout the process, from selecting equipment to preparing the ground to performing the installation. You truly are partnering with this company, so choose wisely. Be sure to check references. Find out about reliability and on-time delivery. Research the durability and the safety record of their products. Ask about warranties. Make sure you know up-front what you can and can’t expect from them.

Consider lifecycle costs. You’re not just buying a playground; you’re creating an asset that will have to be maintained for years to come. All the decisions you make now affect how long the playground will be viable and how much it will cost to maintain over time. For instance, rubber tile surfacing typically has a lower maintenance cost than loose fill, but it’s more expensive initially. Wooden equipment tends to have higher maintenance costs than metal. Be sure to ask about maintenance, repair costs, and typical deterioration. Then compare costs over time.

Choose a builder. (You?) Community-built playground projects are popular, and building it yourself can save a boatload of money. In addition, engaging the community like this is a good way to create support and enthusiasm. On the other hand, it’s a tremendous organizational task. Plus, a stretch of bad weather around your build date can ruin your best-laid plans and significantly reduce your work force. If you do decide to go the build-it-yourself route, make sure you have an expert directing the process—someone who has done plenty of playground installations in the past. Much of the process can be accomplished by people who know their way around a socket wrench. Some crucial steps require real expertise, however, and doing them wrong could have serious consequences for the safety and longevity of your playground.

Be prepared for things to go wrong. As with any construction project, things don’t always go as planned. Late deliveries, bad weather, unexpected obstacles, a promised donation that doesn’t come through—projects have been delayed by all of these and more. Your project might run completely smoothly, and many do. But be prepared to scramble if necessary. Choose a committee chairperson who’s not easily flustered. And don’t have your heart set on a tight timeline. Yes, it would be great to have the playground installed by the start of school. But if one heavy rainstorm on the wrong day will keep you from making that goal, keep Murphy’s law in the back of your mind.

Cast a wide net. Reach out to parents and the community in general for help and advice. This is not the time to go it alone. Maybe a parent owns a construction business and can offer advice and equipment. Maybe the town parks director will look over your plans. Is there a neighborhood group that will help support the project? The more people who feel they have a stake in your success, the better for your project.

Stoke the publicity machine. Make sure everybody in town knows you’re building a playground. You’re likely going to try to raise money from many different sources. The right publicity will make it easier to ask for the help you need. Is your existing equipment old, unsafe, and in need of repair? Is your current playground overcrowded? Or are you starting from scratch to give the kids a place to play? Tell your story to the media, the school district, and local elected officials. Hold a kickoff event to give media something to cover and politicians something to attend.

Seek a variety of funding sources. Building a playground is often the largest fundraising project a parent group will undertake. Depending on the size of your project, it may not be feasible to raise all of the money through traditional fundraisers aimed at your core audience. Look for grants like Lowe’s Toolbox for Education. Connect with the local parks department to see whether they can offer help. Partner with local businesses. Be sure to offer businesses something tangible for their donation. Mention donors in all publicity, and consider installing a permanent sign listing key donors.

Talk up the importance of free play. Kids today participate in a lot of organized activities, but free play—the kind of creative, spontaneous games that playgrounds encourage—is also important. Research shows that it builds social skills, confidence, and self-esteem and may stimulate brain development. Your playground won’t just be a fun place for kids. It will provide an important outlet for growth and development. Keep that in mind when you’re telling people why building a playground is important.

Get kids involved in planning. Did you ever buy a toy that looked fun to you, but your child never really played with it? The same thing can happen with a playground. The best way to get kids excited about the playground and to make sure it will be popular is to involve them in the planning. Hold a design contest. Create focus groups and ask students what they would like. When you’re getting close to making a decision about equipment, let kids sound off on what they like best. It’s easy to get bogged down in (important) details about safety, accessibility, flow of the equipment, and more. But the bottom line is that the playground must be fun, and the kids make that decision. If they decide against you, your playground will be an expensive ghost town.

Visit other playgrounds. Do this for a few reasons. First, seeing equipment in use will help you make good choices. Second, you’ll get an idea of what equipment kids use most and which pieces they ignore. Third, visiting other playgrounds in the area will help you make yours unique. Just one or two different, well-chosen pieces can make a playground special and popular.

Remember: Safety first. More than 200,000 children are hurt on playgrounds each year, with falls from equipment being the number one culprit. It’s important to provide a safety surface matched to the height of the play equipment. Also, provide separate, age-appropriate play areas for preschoolers and children 5 years and older. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “Public Playground Safety Handbook” is available online and spells out in plain English important safety dos and don’ts when planning a playground.

Keep accessibility in mind. Whether you’re building a new playground or changing an existing one, your project is subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Your play structure and a variety of equipment must be accessible to children with disabilities. That doesn’t mean the whole structure needs to be accessible, but children with and without disabilities should be able to play together in a variety of ways. The playground itself must be accessible to people with disabilities from the school and parking lot.

Supply enough shade. Shade can reduce the temperature of a playground by as much as 15 degrees on a hot day. Whether the shade comes from trees or from a purchased shade shelter, it’s important to give kids a way to get out of the sun. Also, orient heat-absorbing equipment like metal slides away from the sun.

Obtain insurance. You’ll need to cover materials once they’re delivered and until they’re installed, as well as liability for the construction process. Your playground installer may cover you for these periods, especially if you are using one company to provide the equipment and perform the installation. If you are doing a community build, you may need to get coverage on your own. After the playground is built, you’ll need liability coverage for injuries that may occur. If your parent group is in charge of the construction process but the school will own the finished playground, consider drawing up a contract to transfer ownership. (PTO Today offers discounted insurance to parent groups.)

Keep up with maintenance. The work doesn’t end once the playground is installed. It’s important to protect your investment, and the safety of the children who use it, by creating and following a regular maintenance schedule. You’ll need to make sure debris and animal droppings are cleaned up on a regular basis. If you use loose fill, it should be raked regularly, especially at landing zones for swings and slides. Check the area for roots and rocks. Inspect equipment for cracks, loose rails, and other hazards. Clean your equipment with a mild detergent, and treat wood with preservative once a year.

Throw a celebration. When your playground is complete, cut a ribbon, take pictures, and let the kids play. This is an important part of the process to let the many supporters you develop over the course of the project share in your success. Your group will have earned a moment in the sun, too; building a playground is a major accomplishment.

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