December 11, 2017

Playground Design 101: A Deeper Look

A Deeper Look

This is part two of our three-part series, Playground Design 101. Read part one, or request a free copy of Blueprint for Play to learn more about Planning, Funding, Designing, Building and Sustaining a community play space.

When people start to design a new playground we ask a couple of questions:

  • What are your goals for your playground?
  • How will we ensure the maximum play value on your playground?

These questions go far beyond how a playground looks - the color of its slides or the curb appeal of the landscaping. You’ve probably heard the old adage “beauty is only skin deep.” You’ve likely told someone “it’s what’s on the inside that matters.” Those sayings apply to a playground, too. Sure, a playground can look super cool, but it has to meet the needs of the community and the purpose of the project too! So take some time with key stakeholders to create a list of top priorities. This will help in the overall design process, budget planning and equipment selection. You can explore a few design options to find the best use of funds and a project that aligns with what your community feels is important.

Here is a list of considerations to make sure your new playground meets your goals and provides the most play value for children and families. The end result will be a meaningful, and beautiful playground design for your community.

1. Context

Where will your play space be located? Choose a location that will serve the greatest number of families. Consider a location within walking distance of neighborhoods to help make sure the play space will be used.

2. Developmental and Learning Applications

What is the age range of children who will visit your playground? How do you want to incorporate tools that will encourage skill-building? If programming will be offered at the play space, what opportunities for learning can be included in the equipment, activities, or natural environment to provide hands-on experiences outdoors?

3. Inclusive Play

How can you create an environment that will provide equal play experiences and activities that challenge users at every level physically, socially, emotionally and cognitively? Try to develop a space that focuses on the child’s perspective to creative universally designed, inclusive play environments for people of all ages and abilities. Incorporate the best practices found in Me2: 7 Principles of Inclusive Playground Design to create meaningful outdoor play environments that break down both physical and social barriers to play.

4. Nature Discovery

How can you provide ways for children to interact with nature in your play space? Place playgrounds in close relation to functional surroundings like hills, green spaces , nd trees. Take advantage of natural entrances, pathways and boundaries. Another way is to incorporate garden pockets or natural elements. If you would like more resources to understand how to best integrate nature into your playground design, request a free copy of NatureGrounds: Designing Play Environments that Integrate Manufactured Equipment with the Living Landscape to discover best practices from experts in naturalized play environments.

5. Physical Activity & Fitness

Many communities tell us their primary goal is to promote more physical activity among children. Here are some design best practices to consider:

  • Offer a variety of equipment like slides, swings, brachiating (overhead climbing), balancing, and climbing.
  • Create a developmental progression of skills by picking equipment for different users that will promote healthy risk-taking and provide challenging activities for every skill level.
  • Choose child-friendly plant materials, pathways, and existing topography to encourage movement and add play value.
  • Provide additional loose parts to encourage children to move and work together to manipulate their environment.
  • Design the layout of your playground in a way that will encourage movement through running, chasing, exploring, and active play.
  • Playgrounds aren’t just for children. There are ways to incorporate adult fitness equipment so parents or caregivers can be physically active while watching their children play.

For more ideas on activities that promote physical activity while also meeting national standards for physical education on the playground, take a look at Play On!: Playground Learning Activities for Youth Fitness.


In previous blog posts, we’ve mentioned having space available for special community events such as shows, picnics, and more. This is an important part of the overall design of your playground. Will play facilitators or programming staff be used? What types of amenities will need to be included, such as restrooms, picnics areas, trash receptacles, bike racks, or grills? With the right design, you can create opportunities to bring learning outdoors and engage children in a way that reinforces concepts they are learning in school by bringing them on a field trip to your local playground to study the weather and draw pictures of how it looks that day. The possibilities are endless!


This area of design is essential to your play area. You can choose from a wide variety of surfacing types depending on the need, budget, and space. Unitary surfaces such as poured-in-place recycled rubber offer the greatest accessibility for an inclusive play space, but wood fiber is a more economical choice. Understanding the role surfacing plays in your playground, as a safety element, and as a play and learning medium, is essential to tying together all the pieces of your playground together. Request a free copy of Strong Foundations to learn more about planning, purchasing and protecting your playground safety surfacing.

Maintenance and Supervision

Planning how your playground will look and what types of equipment you want to involve is fun and exciting, but it’s also important to discuss who will be responsible for the general upkeep and maintenance of the play space. Will your design goals be manageable with their resources and budget?

It’s also important to think about making the playground not only fun but also make it a safe environment for the community. Does your playground offer clear sight lines for supervision and comfortable areas for caregivers to watch their children as they play? For more ideas on how to cater your playground to supervision, request a free copy of our Playground Supervision Guide.

Community Culture and History

The great thing about getting community input on the design of your playground is that you can give back by incorporating important historical or community-specific cultural aspects into the space. Discuss what your community is known for and how you can highlight those features with custom themed products, signage, artwork, natural resources, and/or programming.

Ensure Play Value

Play value is the qualities of a playground that make it meaningful, enjoyable, and how it can sustain repeated use by the community. Playgrounds should:

  • Promote learning and development.
  • Stimulate the senses through a rich array of textures, colors, and sounds.
  • Nurture curiosity, creativity, and imagination through a rich ever-changing environment.
  • Be fun, provide a place to relax and escape from routine, mental fatigue, and boredom.
  • Support children’s basic social, physical, and cognitive needs. You can do this by making the playground comfortable and scaled to the child’s size while still making it physically and intellectually challenging.
  • Encourage and allow interaction among children, materials, and adults.
  • Be dynamic, provide graduated challenges, and be continuously changing.

Building a beautiful playground will excite the community. Building a beautiful playground that is usable and developmentally beneficial to the greatest number of people possible will unite your community. As with all things of great worth, it’s all about what’s on the inside!

Read our other Playground 101 Series: Playground Planning 101 | Playground Funding 101