21 Aug
10 Favourite Natural Playground Elements
Posted by Joanna Francis

We think that natural elements should be a key part of any playground, not just an afterthought. It pays to start by creating a natural ‘canvas’, defining the main pathways where people will transition through the site (‘desire’ lines) and then create natural elements around that. Think about this from the start and then design your play elements around the natural elements, rather than the other way around. Today in the final post of our series, we’re sharing 10 of our favourite natural playground elements that are low cost, easy to install and that will help bring some green to your kids’ play space.

1. Hills. All hills require is clean fill. You can get it from your own garden, or stop trucks going past and save it from going to landfill. All soil is a mixture of things… silt, clay, sand etc. A good way to check for what it is, is it to take a small handful and put it in a glass jar, fill it with water and shake until dissolved and if it’s really sandy, it will sink to bottom and the water will be fairly clear. If it’s got too much clay, the water will be really murky and if it’s silty it will be somewhere in between. So you may need to adjust the content, ie. if it’s got too much clay you may need to cap the hill with some kind of sand or soil or mulch so it doesn’t slide. Top soil is the best! It’s good to cordon off sections of the hills, plant a variety of plants and define some pathways. Help stop erosion with sand, gravel, rocks, logs etc to help that part of the slope together.


2. Sand. Every child has a natural affinity with sand. It’s the original loose parts playground. It doesn’t dry out like play-dough or paint, it doesn’t go hard and need re-hydrating like clay. Yes, it gets stuck in your shoes and your pockets but it comes cleanly off your skin and you can spend the whole lunchtime playing in it and it doesn’t stress out the teacher. The properties of sand are miraculous. Good sand can be poured through a funnel and will run like a liquid, but add some clean water and you can build roads and tunnels and castles. And the best part is, tomorrow you can do something completely different. Here at Playground Ideas, sandpits are the one element that we think every playground should have.


3. Trees are a fantastic addition to any playground. Not only do they look great, but they can be climbed, they provide shade and also add loose parts that kids can then play with, such as sticks, seed pods, leaves etc. They also bring worms, butterflies, insects to the playground and can also form the structure of built elements such as swing frames, tree houses etc. Try and incorporate existing trees into the design of the playground, or research native trees in your area and plant your own.

4. Flowers and vegetables. Another great addition to any playground and one that can help facilitate children’s understanding and love of gardening. Why not get the kids involved in planting flowers, herbs and vegetables that they can then pick and eat? We love creating bean teepees and so do the kids! The sensory experience of smelling herbs, seeing the bright colours of flowers and picking beans or sweet peas is perfect for all children, but particularly tactile toddlers.

5. Screening plants are any plants that will grow up and obstruct ground level to around 2m high vision. Some will be tall, skinny plants (eg. bamboo) some will be busy and wide and are great for creating mazes, circular, enclosed quiet spaces, pathways and colonnades that can stop traffic from certain directions, therefore protecting areas from unwanted foot traffic. Depending on where you are in the world, and the time of day, screening plants can provide fantastic shade and protection from early morning and late afternoon hot sun.

6. Round logs and stumps for stepping stones. Kids naturally love jumping between stepping stones and round logs or stumps are great for this. They can form the boundary of a sandpit or be placed throughout a playground as a kind of pathway.

7. Climbers using logs and sticks. If you’ve got large, smooth logs or branches, why not try creating a climber out of them that kids can clamber up, jump off and create games on, such as this one that we created in PNG a few years ago.

8. Rocks/ stones. A lot of people think rocks are dangerous in playgrounds because of their hard material but this is not true at all. They’re great because their surface is “grippy” and once in place, it will be there for a long time to come. Finding smooth rocks that have been pummeled in rivers or beaches is often not hard and even if sharp quarried stones is all you can find, you can often use a grinder and a sledgehammer to crack off and shape the edges. So that at least the surface that’s on top is not sharp. One thing to be careful of is that most elements above 600mm from the ground surface or forced movement elements (see-saws, slides) need a 1.5-2m safe fall zone and so rocks need to be outside of this area. (nb. Swings have their own safe fall zone that are larger). One of the simplest ways to use rocks is as stepping stones, and an extension of this is stepping stones that gradually get further away from each other. Rocks also make perfect steps up an incline, to the top of a hill or a hillslide for eg. Larger rocks are the perfect edging for a sandpit. Using masonry tools or a stone grinder blade, you can etch pathways, board games, roads, or water channels into the surface of stones.

9. Water. Water and children go together like bacon and eggs. One of our favourite pieces of parenting advice that has served us well is, “when kids are grumpy or having a bad day, just add water”. Water can be added into playgrounds by adding loose parts water elements such as a water play tub with funnels and cups, creating a channel that water can be poured into and a pump added, or why not create our Sand and water table, made from recycled tires.

10. Found and seasonal natural materials, such as seed pods, wild flowers and leaves. These may come from trees or plants that are in the playground or can be collected from elsewhere and included in a box or designated area. Kids are naturally creative at taking objects that us adults easily look over, and turning them into games or play items. Pebbles become marbles, long sticks become a teepee, large leaves from a plane tree become a bed for little seed pod people. Collect what you can find, and let their imaginations run wild.

Please help us to continue creating and sharing free resources, so that you and others all over the world can keep creating awesome play spaces for kids!