23 Feb
10 Principles of Playground Design
Posted by Elizabeth Moreno

The places children gravitate to for play come in many shapes and forms. An amazing “playground” can look like a wild forested grove, a humble junkyard, or a million dollar artistic sculpture. So what are the ingredients that make up a great playground design? The designs the team at Playground Ideas creates are shaped by these ten principles:

Playground Design

1. Design for different types of play. Children use different types of play to understand the world around them and to master life skills. Unfortunately, most playgrounds only focus on active, physical types of play. A good playground challenges and promotes children’s growth by providing opportunities for children to engage in multiple different types of play. As you’re creating your playground design, consider how you can accommodate different types of play and ways for children to use their bodies and minds and interact with the environment and others:

– Active play- Running, jumping, climbing, kicking, and punching. Twirling, swinging, spinning, and rolling around. Moving your body up, down, and around.

– Sensory play – Touching different interesting textures, smelling flowers and plants, hearing music and sounds, tasting edible plants and fruits, seeing different perspectives and angles as well as beautiful shapes and colors.

– Creative play – Drawing, crafting, painting, coloring, writing, singing, drumming, and dancing. Creative expression allows children to communicate and connect.

– Imaginative Play – Dressing up, make-believe, and pretend play. Play houses, pretend ships, dolls, costumes, and props let children act out imaginary scenes and adopt roles. + Manipulative play – Building, molding, manipulating, sifting, pouring, scooping, stacking, combining, and altering.

– Social play – Talking, sharing, cooperating, taking turns, following “rules,” and playing sports.

– Reflective play – Watching, resting, reflecting, thinking, daydreaming, and just staring into space. Of course these aren’t the only ways children play, but these categories help us to broaden our understanding of play.

Of course, these aren’t the only way kids play. In fact, play researchers have identified 16 different “types” of play. Use these play types to guide your design and see how many you can include space for on your playground.


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2. Create a sense of place. Incorporating a “sense of place” into designs took practice for us to learn. This is a quote from a volunteer on one of Playground Ideas’ earliest playground builds in Thailand:

“We built a playground once based around the theme of a castle, when it was nearly finished one of the builders came to me and said ‘What is a castle?’ The playground looked great and the kids loved it, but deep down I knew we had missed something important.”

A playground without a sense of place looks generic, like it could be anywhere in the world. A playground with a strong sense of place speaks to the culture, location, and “spirit” of community. Feeling rooted in the place and culture you live in is key to many positive outcomes not only for children, but also for the whole community. It fosters a sense of civic pride and belonging. The stories we tell, the yearly celebrations, the landscape, the architecture, the people, the weather, the jokes, and traditions all make us feel connected.

Infuse a sense of place into the details of any pretend play areas – like play houses or shops. Really focus on the cultural specifics here to create and authentic experience. How are houses built in this community? What do the kitchens look like? What are the names/ logos of local businesses? The aim is for a playground to become a special place, a unique symbol of the community. Spaces for children to play are expressions of local imagination and spirit. What will make your playground different from any other playground build anywhere else in the world?

3. Trust children’s creativity. Adults have a tendency to design play elements with a singular purpose: slides are for sliding down, swings are for swinging on, and monkey bars are for traversing. But children are boundlessly creative and they will always find ways to use elements for purposes they weren’t originally designed for. A good playground should encourage and trust children’s creativity to take the lead. As much as possible, include playground elements that can be used in many different ways.

Take a cue from renowned playground architect, Günter Beltzig, “Of course, us adults, we like a beautifully hand carved, wooden motorbike. But what if the child prefers a pony or a unicorn? The more room there is for interpretation the better.” One of the best ways you can leave room for interpretation in your design is by adding “loose parts” to your playground. “Loose parts” is a term that refers to any material that can be moved, carried, stacked, or altered. Loose parts are endlessly interesting to kids because unlike fixed equipment, loose parts allow children to recreate their playground every day from the materials provided. They can transform everyday materials like sticks, cloth, and milk crates into anything they dream up. You can access our “Loose Parts Manual” in our library of handbooks.

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4. Make room for secrets and surprises. Spend an afternoon taking a walk through a city with a young child and you’ll look at the world through different eyes. They’ll be hypnotized tracing where the crack in the sidewalk/ footpath leads, fascinated by the movements of falling leaves floating through the air, and absolutely delighted by the way the rubbish bin lid swings. Children are finely attuned to the small wonders of the world. For them, the magic of a playground sometimes lies more in the little details than it does in the structures and big elements. Throughout your design, add in little surprises that can be discovered whilst playing. Little painted pictures in corners and nooks, secret hiding places, interesting textures, handles and levers, peep holes, unexpected sounds, and talking tubes all make and keep a playground interesting. While busily building, these details can easily be missed or forgotten so prioritize them in your design.

5. Consider the “flow” of the space. Children in a natural state of play do not move in straight lines. Having a playground that “flows” well involves having all the components of the playground well-connected. For example, say there is a path leading from the playground entrance to the rope bridge, cargo net, and monkey bars, but in between these you can divert off to the hopscotch, slide, or tree house. Good “flow” will give the child different directions to explore each time they step into the play space and will help avoid traffic jams on the playground.

6. Create zones for different energy levels. Consider what atmosphere or feeling you want to foster in different parts of the the playground depending on what activities will likely take place there. For instance, a corner with a slide and rope swing might be active and loud, while a corner with a garden and bench might inspire more quiet reflection. Many playgrounds try to utilize space by putting extra elements like seats or chalkboards underneath platforms and climbing structures. This can work if the activities are similar, but imagine trying to chat and have a conversation with your friend or draw a picture while people stomped and shouted above you. You’d rather be somewhere quiet, wouldn’t you? Separating spaces by energy levels creates space for different kinds of activities. Create room on your site for children to scream and shout, talk and laugh with their friends, or quietly daydream.

7. Don’t get too preoccupied with looks. All children deserve a beautiful place to play – one full of interesting colors, shapes, and textures. But as you’re designing the space, don’t get too caught up in how the space will look. Children’s play can often look messy and chaotic – and that’s ok! Remember the point of a playground is to provide a space where play can happen, not just a pretty yard. Playability is more important than aesthetics.

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8. Design for intersections. When designing your site, consider the needs of children of different abilities. This can include mental and physical disabilities, but it also extends to children of different ages, abilities and strengths. Trying to design a playground in which every inch is accessible to every child who might play on it will result in a pretty boring play space. It can also have the unintended consequence of segregating children of different abilities.

Instead, focus on designing for “intersections,” or opportunities for children of all abilities to interact and play together. In designing spaces of “intersection”, it’s helpful to think about ability on a scale, instead of categorizing children as “disabled” and “able-bodied.” When you think about the strengths of children on a scale, you can design spaces where features have a range of difficulty instead of a distinction like a handicap slide. A rock climbing wall is a good example of a feature with a scale of difficulty. A rock climbing wall has several levels of difficulty all on the same wall, so a beginner and a pro can be climbing next to each-other and challenging themselves in ways that are appropriate to their abilities.

Within your design, look for opportunities where children of different abilities end up interacting and playing together. This could look like a cubby-house with a sandpit and bucket/pulley at the bottom so children playing below can interact with children up in the cubby-house, or talking tubes that connect children in different parts of the playground space. To learn more about designing for children of all abilities, check out our “Inclusive Design Manual.”

9. Work with, not against nature. The best playground is the one nature provided. Tree limbs are perfect for climbing and swinging on and river rocks make the best stepping stones. The ultimate sandbox is a big stretch of beach and a handful of shells. Incorporate nature into your design as much as possible by adding gardens, trees, flowers, boulders, stumps, and logs. In addition, look at how you can work with the natural features that already exist in your space. Are there any hills? Build your slide into the slope instead of building a ladder or ramp. Are there any trees in your space? Position the sandbox underneath so kids can tinker and shovel away in the cool shade. Where is the best natural line of sight in your space? Consider positioning benches for the teachers here. Sometimes removing a dead tree may be necessary, but before you clear-cut or remove any natural features, consider how they can be incorporated into your design.

10. Don’t forget the basics! Be sure to include basic practical necessities in your space like: + Shade

– Drinking water

– Seating for adults

– Trash cans

– Storage for any loose parts or play equipment

– Any necessary playground rules or signage

Learn more about playground design and how to build your own space for play in Playground Ideas’ “Playground Builder’s Handbook.


10 Principles of Playground Design