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Playground Design: Creating Great Playgrounds for Today’s Children

children playing in playground

As the member of a committee or board charged with bringing a new playground to your local park, schoolyard, or other recreational areas where kids or families gather, you likely have many concerns about equipment safety and durability among a long list of other essential factors. Has your group been paging through catalogs and gathering community feedback, but you still feel overwhelmed in creating a fun play area that will actually be used and appreciated?

It’s true that you’ve likely never designed a play area before, and have no idea where to start. Luckily, there is a knowledgeable resource on playground design that can guide your organization and assure that you’re making the right choices while fully respecting your budget.

To help you get started, today’s blog post offers a few of the main points your group will want to consider as you begin playground planning. However, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone in creating an appealing recreational space. Our playground design process here at River Valley Recreation can help you make these decisions with strong guidance from experts—and we can build and maintain your playground, too.

Considering Location and Siting

While plenty of new playgrounds are installed as direct replacements for older equipment that is no longer safe, play areas are also commonly created in new parks or recreation areas—especially within newer housing developments or at newly constructed schools. For these “building from scratch” projects, groups and/or landscape architects will not only have to choose what equipment they want to install, but often where equipment will be located.

Within parks and public areas, thinking about proximity to other resources, such as restrooms, parking areas, and/or walking trails is key. Fewer users will enjoy a playground if it’s too far off the beaten path. At the same time, the playground will need to be somewhat protected from busy traffic areas, such as a park entrance or exit driveway.

For school playgrounds, considering how close the playground is to the school building and making sure it’s easily monitored by teachers and aides with no out of the way corners or invisible angles should be of primary concern. Adding site amenities like Buddy Benches or bike racks may also complement your design.

Determining a Theme or Focus

There are more playground system components and features available to select than ever before, which makes it easy to design around specific themes. For instance, if you want to create experiences that incorporate musical play, Freenotes Harmony Park equipment brings fun that you can hear. Or perhaps you want to focus on equipment that promotes climbing—or that invites children and adults to play together. All of these—and more—are possible.

Take a look at our gallery of recent projects and see a few themed playground examples. It’s also fine to mix and match equipment without a visual theme or skill/activity focus, too. The joy of modern playgrounds is how unique they can be—think about how much more fun and inviting these systems are compared to the cookie-cutter see-saws and jungle gyms of your old elementary school playground!

Promoting Inclusive Play

Modern playground design considers accessibility in new ways. To meet ADA requirements, as well as promote inclusivity in our public play spaces, new equipment and play structures can be customized to accommodate children with diverse abilities.

Along with developing your playground’s theme, you’ll want to think about incorporating opportunities for different types of enrichment—physical, social-emotional, communication, and more—among all children.

Creating Zones of Play and Considering Age Appropriateness

With the idea of creating a playground for all children with varying levels of physical abilities—and possibly their adult guardians, as well—are decisions about whether equipment should be grouped for different types of play and/or age groups.

There can be advantages to keeping areas designed for babies and toddlers to enjoy with help from a parent or caretaker separate from areas intended for high-energy older kids. It’s true that safety should be at the center of every playground design decision, and this may mean creating different play zones.

Working with Nature and Promoting Safety

Thinking about the trees and vegetation that already exist around your future playground will come with considering your location and site, as we touched on above. However, there is also the matter of site preparation and surfacing. You will need to think about whether your chosen playground location will require grading or excavation in order to place equipment, and you will also need to install an appropriate surface under your playground equipment.

No matter what type of play system components you’re interested in, the entire area where you install your equipment, as well as the safety buffer zone around it, should be level and covered with a soft material that can cushion falls. The depth of those surface materials depends on the maximum height of the play equipment, also called the maximum fall height. There are many natural and engineered products to choose from today, from engineered wood fiber to one of our favorites: poured-in-place rubber.

Does Your Organization Need Help Designing a New Playground?

River Valley Recreation is here for schools, community park boards, homeowners associations, daycare centers, and organizations of various kinds. We also collaborate with landscape architects and other outdoor space design teams to create modern, safe, and fun playgrounds that today’s kids love to interact with. If you have questions about getting started with the process of designing a new playground, or replacing an existing one that has reached the end of its service life, get in touch with our experts today!