When it comes to the magic of childhood, nothing stands out more than the adventures we had playing outside. Play isn’t just for fun; little do children know that playing is their form of work — they are learning and growing with every leap and bound.
Not only do playgrounds provide ample opportunity for kids to get rid of their crazy amounts of energy, but it also spurs the imagination. Playgrounds provide the perfect space for children to interact with one another and practice their social and behavioral skills and strengths.
Getting out to a playground, however, is not always an easy task. Sometimes, it is much more convenient for kids to run around in the backyard, especially when your days as a parent run long.
However, you can always bring the playground to your home. In this article, we will cover how to design a playground play area and what you’ll need.
1. Review Preliminary Designs
Before getting started on the construction of your playground play area, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when designing it.
You will need to consider certain functional and design points:
- Encourage socialization
- Utilize your immediate surroundings
- Provide high accessibility for various demographics
- Provide risks and challenges in a safe and hazard-free environment
- Have pleasing aesthetics
- Stimulate imagination and creativity
- Include big space for active play
2. Optimize for Socialization
Playgrounds should encourage children to interact with one another. To increase the impact this play area has, consider what objects and structures provide the best opportunities for interaction and socialization.
Two primary types of equipment are featured on playgrounds: fixed and loose equipment.
Fixed equipment is defined as structures that remain permanently stationary. Fixed equipment includes swings, slides, bridges, and monkey bars.
Loose equipment is considered anything that can be picked up, moved around, or brought to the play area. Usually, loose equipment provides less structured play and can be more cost-effective. Some examples of loose equipment are jump ropes, sports balls, boxes, or tubes.
Like everything in life, balance is critical here. When loose and fixed are combined under the careful eye of a caregiver or playset designer, there are opportunities for children to flex various social muscles.
Under that same umbrella, certain equipment can serve specific developmental stages. For example, art supplies or balls would work well for constructive play, while swings can be incredible for those in the parallel play stage.
3. Utilize the Available Space
Sometimes a backyard or space might not have room for a full playset or swing set. In that case, caregivers can try to use their surroundings to encourage both play and outdoor time.
To start, see if it’s possible to use the terrain to your advantage.
Do you have large rocks? Are there any trees that are suitable for climbing or could safely hold a tire swing? Look for the opportunities but also the concerns. For example, bodies of water can be exciting but might be a danger even for those who know how to swim. Stagnant water can invite mosquitoes and other pests.
All of these natural features provide pre-established playground objects and a solid connection to the rest of nature. As children grow and begin to explore the world around them, the controlled natural environment of this playground will help them build their confidence in exploring.
Plan for the Future
Since you are the planner, you know more than anyone what your child likes and does not like. Besides your family, it might help to think about who could be coming over for playdates. Who else is playing here? What are their ages?
Thinking about neighborhood kids, classmates, cousins, and friends can help inform what size play structure is needed and what to incorporate into that space. Kids who love organized sports might appreciate some room to practice, run drills, or hold matches. Children who love arts and crafts might enjoy an area where they can set up an easel away from the sun.
You should also look to add a wide variety of activities for a range of different abilities. Ramps, shaded areas, and level surfaces are a few examples of how to make your playground a little more accessible to a larger demographic of kids.
4. Calculate Risks and Challenges
Safety is always our number one priority. However, it’s necessary to find a good balance between safety and challenge.
Kids need to take risks and challenge themselves, especially in play. It allows them to find their limits, expand their confidence, build resilience, and become adaptable, all while staying in a relatively hazard-free environment. In recent years, this has been called reasonable risk.
Reusable risk is good for development, and it keeps the playground entertaining. If playgrounds are made too safe, children begin to lose interest much faster than when they are allowed to participate in risky play.
5. Add in Colors
This one can feel self-explanatory. Everyone enjoys aesthetically pleasing structures. In fact, it can make or break the use of a playground. It has also been shown that the more pleasing a playground structure is, the more children play on it.
But, like adults, children all have their own tastes. So, when it comes to designing play areas, there are a few simple guidelines. Research has shown that children prefer primary and secondary colors more so than muted ones (bright red is more interesting to a child than rose pink).
Here’s the reasoning: Scientists theorize that brighter colors are easier for developing eyesight to understand. Light, muted shades might not stick out as much and can be trickier to focus on.
6. Add Creative Details
It’s essential to have enough structures and equipment that spur children’s imagination and creativity. In this case, the more loose and “purposeless” structures that your playground has, the more chances your children have to make their own play.
These structures should provide a high enough challenge, complexity, and stimulus to retain the kids on the playground. Sensory stimulation is a great way to pique children’s interest, and providing a wide variety of sensory play can spark creativity. You can add several sources of visual, aural, and tactile stimuli for your kids in the form of water tables, sensory tables, and designated digging areas.
7. Review Available Space
Sometimes, older children tend to prefer having a large space for play. They use this space for informal games, primarily sports games. These activities spark social interaction, cooperation, competition, and creativity. While this is true for some, it’s not true for all. Some older children will love to go back and forth on the swing set, chatting with their friends or similar.
If you are building a play area, keep in mind how your children’s play styles will develop as they grow. You might want a large area for kids to play and create games in as they show interest.
It is a good idea to look up the standard sizes of various sports courts and fields. Children won’t need a full field to play; if possible, you might want to set aside enough space for roughly half of a standard playing field.
For instance, a half-court for basketball tends to be more feasible than a regulation court. There’s no need to make this a permanent addition to your home — you can sketch it out with chalk on the pavement or the rubber play area.
This way, there is plenty of room for kids to run freely without worrying about hitting each other. In certain cases, there may be enough room for multiple games to occur simultaneously.
8. Choose the Playground Equipment
When building your play area, plan out the materials that you’ll need and how much space all of the equipment will take up. Even if it may not be necessary now because your children are young, they grow up much faster than you ever expect, and they will need it in the near future!
Below are some fixed equipment commonly featured in playgrounds:
- Stepping stones
- Paths connecting the equipment
- Swinging ropes
- Logs for climbing and balance
Natural elements are aesthetically pleasing and make the project easier on you — as long as those items are readily available. While for some caregivers, this can make their playground build list shorter, for others, it will prove near impossible. In some cases, combining the two elements might be the most feasible option.
No matter what, traditional playground equipment has stood the test of time for a reason. Parks, schools, and backyards all become a little more inviting and exciting with some of the following elements:
- Monkey bars
9. Incorporate a Variety of Spaces
When adding in fixed equipment and even considering the loose equipment you want to purchase, plan for the different play spaces your family wants to have in the play area.
Note that the amount of space you have to work with may not accommodate all the spaces you want. Consider which uses are most important to your family when planning it out.
Here is a variety of spaces that you can include in your play area:
- Cubby houses: Spacious crawling spaces that can double as a climbing structure.
- Sensory garden: An area with a variety of textures that stimulate all of the senses.
- Sustainable water play: Water tables for sensory play. It’s also a good way to keep cool on a hot day.
- Gross motor skills area: An open field for running, walking, skipping, jumping, etc.
- Eating space: A shaded area and picnic tables for a quick lunch.
- Quiet space: A change of pace from the rest of the play area, a quick rest area. Suitable for reading or drawing.
- Loose equipment area: Available space for the most creative ideas to take place. Bins of handballs, toys, and more are options.
These play spaces are fantastic for keeping kids engaged in the outdoors. Most importantly, they provide separate zones for children to play independently or in small groups. Because each play space can handle both forms of play, the opportunities of the play area are doubled.
10. Source Toys Intentionally
Before you run to the store to buy a bunch of materials that may or may not get used, it is best to try to search your home for the best play objects for your play area.
Toys With Purpose
The best options are those that can play multiple roles. For instance, a jump rope can serve its intended purpose, but it can be used to tow an imaginary sled or bring a bucket of supplies up to the second story of the playset.
When using everyday items, you can combine several objects to create something new for the kids to play with. Better yet, you and your children can work together to create new objects out of the materials you already have. By including your children, you are getting involved in a great bonding exercise and encouraging them to use their creativity and build their confidence.
When buying new loose equipment items, research what is typically popular with the kids, or you can ask your children what their favorite toys are.
Natural resources are fantastic choices when stocking up your play area. If you’re one of the many parents who have a child obsessed with collecting rocks — this is their time to shine.
While a dozen gray rocks to adults may look somewhat similar and unremarkable, our children pick them up as if they are un-buried treasures. Actually, there’s a pretty good reason for this: children like to collect easily attainable objects as a way of showing their accomplishments to others. Such practices lead to personal growth and an enhanced sense of self-identity.
Encourage your little one to display their collection (which might sometimes need to be curated by an adult if it grows too large) in this outdoor play area. Setting aside a section just for the collection can help children feel proud of their findings and also serve as natural décor.
11. Pick the Playground Surface
Natural resources are great to use for a safe playground surface. Several popular natural choices include gravel, wood chips, and sand. While each has its benefits, they have some downsides.
Pea gravel is a solid option for a natural resource playground surface. It lasts several years and technically doesn’t need to be replaced. Instead, it simply needs to be refreshed with a new layer. Pea gravel is relatively affordable.
Unfortunately, gravel can start feeling hard as the weather gets cold and may not provide soft landings. It poses a threat to kids who might be prone to putting individual pieces in their mouths.
The wood chips used for most playgrounds and parks are made from engineered wood fiber made from renewable resources. They tend to be less pricey than gravel and are often more readily available. They provide a surprisingly soft cushion for trips or falls.
Due to how they are made, these playground-specific wood chips are soft and rounded, but splinters are still a very real possibility. Additionally, wood chips are prone to mold. During the winter, they can freeze, making that soft cushioning protection of summer a thing of the past.
Playground sand, while visually similar to that of coastal beaches, is not the same at its most basic level. Of course, sand made for playgrounds is specially made and chosen for rounded grains to provide a better fall surface. Unfortunately, its cons tend to outweigh the pros.
It isn’t nearly as effective as the previous options for impact absorption. For a hypothetical four-foot fall height, you need at least nine inches of sand. So, while sand is cheap, you will need a lot of it. It can attract neighborhood pets and wildlife in search of a litter box.
One of the other most popular playground surface choices is rubber. Rubber is the perfect choice for the least abrasive material and most impact absorption, which is why we use it on the first floor of the Blue Squirrel Clubhouse.
It lasts an incredibly long time and rarely needs refreshing. However, it is much more pricey than the other options, but the long lifespan of this material can offset the initial purpose.
Be intentional about choosing rubber materials, as some can be prone to overheating.
Put It All Together
Building a play area is not as complicated as it sounds, but professional help is often encouraged. Most of the materials that you need for it are already in and around your home. The biggest concern is to make sure that you have plenty of space for all of the equipment that you want to install. It is also important to consider the benefits of each structure and how long the kids will have fun with the equipment.
The best playgrounds will inspire the imagination, encourage cooperation and teamwork, and build relationships between children, most of the time without them recognizing they are taking critical steps growing into their future selves.
- A Systematic Review of the Best Practices for Playground Inclusion | Grand Valley State University
- What Makes a Good Play Area for Children? | University of Western Australia
- Create the Perfect Play Space | PSC National Alliance
- Public Playground Safety Handbook | U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
- How to Make a DIY Tire Swing | The Spruce
- At-Home Science: Color Mixing Experiment | Sciencing
- Why Do Kids Love Collecting Rocks? | Moms