Following on from my previous blog post Challenging Playgrounds, what can we do to improve upon what we can clearly see as wrong with recent playground designs?

I see several ideas (some not at all implemented) that could improve play space usage:

Tactile Play Spaces

Using natural (and fabricated) materials to create imaginative play spaces is a good idea. Water, sand, gravel, boulders, tree trunks, can all be incorporated into play areas to add interest and imaginative challenge to unstructured play time. The ability to dam up a flowing stream with a sand bank, or some boulders is something that little boys need to do. Last night having a dinner picnic at the park, the kids of three families were congregated around the base of a young sapling tree where some exposed dirt made an impromptu sandpit. There was a perfectly good (by adult standards!) playground not more than 15 meters away! yet these kids, ranging in age from one and a half to ten were enjoying some mud time. The grassed slope was a hit too, seeing who could roll the fastest was a fun competition between the kids while the parents tried to avoid getting dizzy just watching.


Play Terrain

Playgrounds these days are modular things ordered out of a catalog, turning up on the back of a truck and assembled in a day. The modern concept of a playground arose from the tenements of the inner city areas, where green space and play areas were noticeably absent. Cities are generally flat, and the resulting playground ended up flat too. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Parents want to be afforded a view of where their younger children are within the play space, strategically placed pathways, seating and equipment can be placed on the side of a hill, on a mound or in a gully. Design is only limited by the imagination, and unfortunately, there is not enough imagination in the average play space design.

Playground Rating Systems

Inspired by ski area boundaries and the international rating system that goes from green circle through to double black diamond. The premise is that if you want to try out that terrain be aware of the risks, and the ski hill is able to limit its liability from the users injuring themselves. Following on from the concept of Play Terrain, users and parents of users should be made aware of the age or skill appropriateness of a particular section of a play space if it is uniquely suited to young children or older more experienced children.

This has the added benefit of showing the older children which areas are specifically for the younger kids, and therefore its not so cool to play in there with as much energy. Again, the ski hill example is the Slow Skiing Only areas where trails merge or beginners are present.

I’m not advocating that children need to be made liable for their own actions at age three, rather that in appropriate areas, a system of ratings may permit parents and some children to exercise a level of discernment over which equipment they should be playing on. The challenge should always be there to get children to extend themselves, but mastery of a lower level of activity should occur first.

Construction Spaces

Most kids like to build things, you see it at home with blocks or Lego, but equally, it’s important that they have the ability to build bigger things as well. Play Spaces are being designed in cities such as New York, where children are able to actively build things, and in some cases there are trained playworkers on staff to ensure that play is safe and materials are present for the children to enjoy.

Empowering Children

The end users of the equipment should be given some say in what would be fun to play on or with. Kids have differing expectations across the country and a design pulled from a catalog that states that it is suitable for ages 5-12 may really be a waste of money. An example catalog is from Timberform – (pdf here ~ 10MB). There are lots of interesting designs, but are they right for your neighborhood?

Back to the playground – The Boston Globe

“To a young child,” Roger Hart, director of the Children’s Environments Research Group at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York says, “the idea of a playground is ridiculous in the first place. The whole idea of being taken to a place to play is almost an oxymoron. Children want to play everywhere.”

If you are involved in the decision to install or approve play equipment or a new play space, don’t settle for mediocre, get the most exciting design available for your budget. Get community support for a bigger budget.

Realize that children grow and learn in play spaces.

Let us know what you think of these ideas, and share your experiences, good and bad, in playgrounds. Thanks for reading UrbanWokbench!

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Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

9 replies on “Innovative Play Spaces”

  1. In.In the 1970s, an architect in Ithaca, New York, helped parents build an adventure playgrround at his son’s elementary school. Bob Leathers went on to blaze a trail for custom-designed, community-built-from-scratch, composite play structures.
    There are now perhaps 2000 Leathers-designed playgrounds around the world.
    I don’t know how to rate them, but I do know that they are typically the most popular playgrounds in town..
    Readers might enjoy this video about a couple of Leathers-designed playgrounds recently built by villagers in India.
    As an aside, I love what Kaboom is accomplishing. Originally inspired by Bob Leathers, it is however a pity they will only install manufactured playgrounds.

  2. great site! thanks! we’re creating interactive playgrounds in NYC for the last 20yrs that integrate gardens, natural rock areas, water pumps and ponds, greenhouses, hardscape basketball courts, skateboarding areas and art. They’re on public school and parks property, and my 3yr old and I agree about your comments! thanks for the encouragement away from pre-fab and toward interactivity and natural areas.

    Paula Hewitt Amrams last blog post..Free Youth Programs with Open Road of New York

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