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Innovative Playground Design

Growing up, I don’t remember playgrounds near our house, we had “the bush”. This tract of nature reserve, nestled in the leafy suburbs of North Shore Sydney, was the destination for all our neighborhood adventures.

Who needed a cubby house? We had secret hideouts hidden behind impenetrable thorny bushes. Who needed a bike park? We had the walking trails with steps carved out of the native sandstone. Who needed climbing structures? We had the 3 and more meter high rocky “cliffs” that we used to rappel down.

Not everyone has access to this, not while living in a city or the suburbs, but shouldn’t we design and build play structures that offer at least some of these activities and excitement?



If you can’t tell, playgrounds interest me. Maybe its because I’ve got two kids and they always want to go to a park or playground, but from a structural, civil, urban design perspective, (which, if you’re wondering, that really is the general level of though that my mind holds to), playgrounds are a unique element in the built environment, and one that is generally done poorly. Metropolis Magazine recently stated in an article on innovative playgrounds…

The playground is the McDonalds of landscape design. Travel to any city in many parts of the world and the presentation is identical: a flat surface topped by one or two standardized all-in-one activity structures. The Memorial Park playground, which opened this August in Wilsonville, Oregon, points in a different direction. Located in a 17-acre park, the site features a large grassy mound encircled by a series of discrete elements. There is a six-foot-tall red rubber dome, concentric circles of rocks, a small waterfall, and two curved climbing walls with holes in their centers.

Source: The Politics of Play | Metropolis Magazine

The opening of "A drop in the Ocean"Playgrounds, in my mind, should represent physical learning and playful environments where children, (and heaven forbid adults!) can safely have some fun. Urban and suburban environments don’t offer the diversity of surfaces, slopes, rock faces, water and vegetation that one might expect in a less dense setting. Here’s another blogger’s take on this article…

I am interested in how space (and its infrastructures) shape people’s behavior (ranging from physical to social  or cognitive processes). There is a lot to think about here and this is very important questions lately addressed as “the architecture as the interface”. This is then bound to my interest towards both urban computing and social science research.

Source: pasta and vinegar » About urban playgrounds

And again from the Metropolis Magazine article, words that resonate here in (Standards) Australia…

Over the past 15 years international play-safety guidelines have spawned a ubiquitous crop of red, yellow, and blue structures rooted in “impact-attenuating” surfaces. The design problem is especially acute in the United States, where a litigious culture first eviscerated the seesaw, then the merry-go-round, and increasingly threatens the swing set. Eliminating spontaneity and risk from children’s play not only discourages physical activity, critics claim, but deprives young people of the experiences they need to grow and develop as individuals. “Play becomes simplified, and then the child doesn’t have to pay attention to his or her movements,” Danish landscape architect Helle Nebelong says of standardized environments.

The opening of "A drop in the Ocean"If you are looking for inspiration, like me, don’t do a Google search for Innovative Playgrounds, you’ll be mostly disappointed, however there appeared some standouts, and some interesting links to follow.  These guys appeal to me cause they’ve got a nice simple, clean website, and great looking products from the conservative through to the adventurous, (click on the link to go though to their products pages)…

The most creative designs. The best engineering. The safest materials. New products from Landscape Structures are designed to thrill kids, reassure parents and keep everyone happy.

Source: Landscape Structures – New playground products are sure to add challenge and fun to your park or playground

I acknowledge that some of the red, blue and yellow structures that are out there are innovative in their own right, from the production and manufacturing process through to the durability of the products, but as far as inspiring all ages of children to get active, I think most fail.

If you are involved in designing or planning for a park, or expecting a developer to install a new playground in their subdivision, what guidelines are there to ensure not just the safety of the park, but that it will be used by the local children.

The photos shown in this post are from the opening of a local play sculpture called, “A Drop in the Ocean” designed by a local artist. There are safety issues with the installation, but the idea of a non-traditional play area is accepted by the community, and like ordinary swings and slides parks, kids and parents are often seen here.

Here are a couple of valuable links.

  • Super Playgrounds – Business Week article and slide show of some “six-figure” playground installations around the world.
  • Playground Planning Checklist – This is from a manufacturer’s website, but breaks down the process for any type of installation.
  • Innovative Playgrounds Research Report – (PDF) commissioned by the Manitoba Provincial Government, this gives lots of case studies from around the world, some images, and talks about such things as playgrounds in winter and concludes with a decisional matrix for community planning of a playground.
  • Snug and Outdoor – UK based artists who do innovative playground installations. Some crazy stuff.

What are your thoughts on the best types of playgrounds, who should pay for them, and how much?

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

9 thoughts on “Innovative Playground Design

  1. Playgrounds equipment allows children to play freely, which helps mental and emotional development. When children are allowed free play in a structured environment like a playground, they are able to use their imagination and be spontaneous, which is an essential tool for developing a strong sense of well being.

    Playground Equipment

  2. Things can change from city to country, and from past to now. But there is one thing that is never changed, the desire of living better conditions. For example Swing set varies from metal to wooden one that is kind of like old days. It seems people need to put more concentration on playground to cater parents and kids.

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