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Commentary: Playground Design 101

Playground

Ground-up recycled tire crumbs cover this playground behind the K-2nd grade elementary Dickerson School in Chester, N.J., Wednesday, June 3, 2009. The government is reconsidering whether fake turf in playgrounds and sports fields made of ground-up tires could pose health hazards to kids after concerns expressed by some Environmental Protection Agency scientists, according to newly disclosed internal documents from the EPA. (AP Photo/Mike Derer) ASSOCIATED PRESS

The world is filled with playgrounds of all shapes, sizes, and colors—we see them at schools, the park, and even in our own backyards. But have you ever thought about what goes into the design of these structures?

Designers consider these seven principles when developing effective playgrounds:

  1. A Safe Playground is a Happy Playground: When it comes to children, safety is of utmost concern. But, making a play area safe is more complicated than it sounds. Designers must settle on the right location, taking into account factors like dangerous traffic or pollution and proximity to adult supervision. They must choose age-appropriate activities, considering what is appropriate for toddlers versus elementary school-aged children. Finally, they must ensure that everything from materials to sizing is up to area regulations, which requires not only a thorough knowledge of local and federal codes, but also the skill to know how to adhere to them. What’s more, designers need to plan against playground deterioration that could pose a hazard over time, like at this Lansing, Michigan playground that had parents concerned.
  2. Playgrounds Should Enhance Their Natural Settings: While a playground is an environment in its own right, its design should also accentuate the natural setting into which it’s placed in order to help children learn about the world around them. Good designers are creative in finding ways to make the most of their location. For example, Chase Palm Park in Santa Barbara is filled with features that build on the history of the site and its location on the Pacific Ocean, such as a large Nautilus shell where children play with sand and water. In a more rural setting, showcasing the area might mean retaining local plants to surround the playground or incorporating local materials like granite into the structure. In an urban setting, a playground might be built with sleek materials that complement the cityscape around it.
  3. Kids Need All Their Senses Engaged: A good playground will engage a child on more than one sensory level. This can be done through sound (music, bells, etc.), smell (plants and leaves surrounding and incorporated into the design), touch (different textures and materials to engage a child’s curiosity, integration of both natural and fabricated materials), and sight (colors, sizes, themed design). For a good example of a park with abundant sensory stimulation, consider Indian Boundary Park in Chicago, where surrounding the playground are a small zoo, a duck pond, natural-habitat gardens, a wading pool, and a large wooden maze.
  4. Kids Thrive on Challenges: As children grow and develop, they need opportunities to test their capabilities in physical activity. On the playground, this means areas to roughhouse and climb, as well as places to play sports and other games. Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, for example, offers rock climbing, tunnels, slides, and more.
  5. Playgrounds Are Community Structures: The best playgrounds are designed to be used by multiple children at a time to foster the development of social and communication skills. Side-by-side swings like the ones at Malibu Bluffs Park in California and built-in competitive game stations facilitate interaction between kids.
  6. Responsible Design Considers the Environment: While meeting children’s needs is a top priority for designers, choosing sustainable materials matters, too. The Kilburn Grange Adventure Play Park in London was built amongst natural trees in the park using both untreated wood and the living tree trunks themselves as well as recycled doors.
  7. Children Change, So Playgrounds Should, Too: Today’s toddler is tomorrow’s kindergartener, and that’s why the best playgrounds recognize the specific needs of both. Like Atlanta's Candler Park, which offers play options for multiple age groups, long-lasting playgrounds incorporate activities for various learning levels. Creating these types of playgrounds requires understanding of the limitations and needs of different age groups.

There is always more to a playground than what you see at first glance. The above principles only scratch the surface of all that goes into designing a child’s play area. By choosing experienced, knowledgeable designers, you protect yourself and your children from harm, while also giving them vital opportunities to develop and grow.