Playgrounds From Start to Finish

Fund, Design, Build


Whether you are building a playground from the ground up or upgrading and re-imagining an existing space, there are some basic principles that experts say stakeholders should adhere to. These "basics" are the foundations of any building project: planning, funding, design, construction and, ultimately, sustainability.

Beyond the basics, however, and what continues to evolve is how kids—or, in fact, any users of playgrounds—want to play, and that has opened up new creative opportunities and demands for designers, equipment manufacturers and community stakeholders.

Planning is the essential first step, contends Sarah Lisiecki, marketing, communications and education specialist with a Fond Du Lac, Wis.-based play space creator and equipment manufacturer, and what that means is determining some critical baseline information.

"A site assessment," she said, "can help make sure you're meeting all objectives and applicable standards."

Play, playground, recreation and outdoor fitness areas bring people together outdoors, and design plays a big role in the usability of these spaces. Community outreach can go a long way in making certain your play space is what the community wants and needs.

Liseiki offered a working list of considerations as you make your plans that includes:

  • Age range (What ages of children or adults will be using this space?)
  • Capacity (How many people do we need to play at once?)
  • Space (How much room do we have to create this space, and how can we best use it to meet our objectives?)
  • Play experience (Adventure, theme, fitness or combination of all? What type of play experiences do we want users to have?)
  • Location (Is the location easy to access? How can you make sure everyone can easily be part of the environment? Is this location adjacent to another play or recreation space?)
  • Parking (Where will people park? How many people will park here at the same time?)
  • Visibility (How will people know about this park? Can they see it from a street? A neighborhood? Signs?)


"The first thing I would do," said Steve Hare, custom installation project manager for a playground design firm based in Delano, Minn., "is try to understand why they are interested in doing this right now, and also who will be using this playground. That is a key to the whole thing, the end user."

Early in the planning process, consider the needs of the children who will use the space now and those who might use it in the future, added Kent Callison, director of marketing at a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that designs and manufactures play equipment. Plan for what is to come, he said, and not just for right now. "One key issue is making sure a new or replacement playground meets the current ADA guidelines for accessibility. But accessibility is just the start. To make sure the playground is beneficial to every child and to the entire community, it's essential to create a space that is truly inclusive."

Callison urges stakeholders to look at research and best practices like those found in "Me2: Principles of Inclusive Playground Design," a comprehensive design guide created by inclusion experts, architects and educators from Utah State University Center for Persons with Disabilities.

Funding Fundamentals

As for funding a play space, Liseiecki said, it can come from a variety of sources. "Check your manufacturer's website to see what tools they have available. Some provide a grant database, fundraising ideas and even materials to help you get the community involved and excited about your project."


This initial step, she added "is also a great time to reach out to your local representative and see if they can help you with the initial planning and your site assessment.

Agreeing with Lisiecki is Tom Norquist, past president of IPEMA (International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association), who said, "Right now, if you are a manufacturer and you aren't providing your customer with information on funding on your website, then you are behind the times." That is a given in the marketplace today, he said, just like safety was a given in the marketplace a decade ago.

Norquist is correct, noted Callison. Funding is one of the most frequent things people ask about. "We've seen communities rally together to raise money for playgrounds, bond issues from municipal governments and corporate funders step in to help build new playgrounds," he said. Callison's company, in fact, publishes a downloadable funding guide. It includes local, regional and national funding sources for playground projects.


It's also important to know how much to budget for a playground. The basic rule of thumb, Callison said, is $1,000 per child who will play on the playground at one time. So, if you want to build a playground large enough for 50 children, budget $50,000 for the play equipment. Shipping, installation and site work will add to that cost, but it's a good benchmark for setting a budget.

If you seek a playground grant, Callison said, funders will likely want to know the outcomes associated with their financial assistance. "It's not always easy to quantify the long-term impact a playground makes in a community, but companies are helping with that, too. Our parent company designates some play and recreation projects as 'National Demonstration Sites' depending on whether they are designed using best practice principles and research."

Inclusive playgrounds, outdoor fitness areas and nature-based play spaces are all considered and added to a national network. "At these sites, we gather usage information from visitors using a data framework, and we can report back to communities and to funders how often the site is being used, the reasons people visit, and how their lives are impacted as a result."

Design: Often Overlooked


In his four decades in the business of building playgrounds, Norquist said that there are things he's seen municipalities and school districts overlook.

"You need to take into account what natural amenities and features exist in the space where the playground is or will be," he said. "Too many times I have seen the removal of natural features like trees and boulders to clear a space out to build a play environment."

Today, leading landscape architects are bringing natural elements into play environments as part of that play experience, using nature as an inspiration.

"So," he said, "if by chance or luck you have some beautiful trees or some rock outcroppings, planting beds or something that exists, is there a way to incorporate into the playground design to benefit with those natural elements? Is there a way for it to harmoniously be a part of that design?"


Norquist said he's come across quite a few situations where there is a beautiful tree on the site. "Let's understand what our southern exposure is," he said. "You might be able to benefit from the natural shade that the tree casts for most of the day, but especially during 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the critical six hours where the temperature may be the highest. It's about understanding sun exposure. Is there natural shade that can be leveraged?"

The next thing that Norquist cites as a common misunderstanding is the slope within the build site. "One needs to think: Is there some slope where advantage might be taken? For example, if you have a gently sloping area, it might allow for a nice gently sloping pathway that meets ADA requirements as an accessible route without having to have handrails," he said. "You then might be able to carve out an area within that gentle slope with a playful retaining wall and pick up several feet of elevation without having to use expensive playground equipment ramps, for accessibility. Professional architects understand how to do these designs, but the normal playground person might not."


Think about drainage as well, Norquist suggested. One of the most important things in wet environments is figuring out drainage, he said. "Having lived in the southeast for several decades, when it rains, it pours. And when it pours that water has to go someplace. Think about putting in some positive drainage in the infrastructure before you start your playground construction."

Know how your site is going to drain, he said. Is there any opportunity with the natural drain water to be in an area with specialized plantings, a collection area or a catch basin? All of these elements are incredibly important before you begin to either analyze an existing site or create a new site.

Safety surfacing is also something to focus on, Hare added. You need to understand what safety surfacing will be used. That plays a big part in the budget. Poured in place and artificial turf can take up a lot of the construction budget, although over time they can pay off in terms of lower maintenance requirements. Engineered wood fiber (EWF) is a lot less expensive upfront but does require more maintenance and annual replenishing.

Design It


People today don't want a canned, predesigned playground, Hare said. "Design something specific and unique to your community of users." As a stakeholder, ask your designer to render two or three options, complete with different play components, and then share those with the community for their input.

"Take the best of each option," Hare suggested, "and maybe merge them into a fourth design. It might be the one that has it all: It meets their budget. It fits their space. It accommodates the needs of all their users. It is safe. It is durable. It is easy to maintain."


When all of these factors are aligned, it's time to begin the actual design and talk about equipment. This is the fun part of any project for designers. "Of course," Liseiecki said, "there are standards to meet—ADA, AS™ and CPSC are the main ones—and it's important to address all of these."

Another factor that is extremely important is play equity. "Being inclusive is different than being accessible, she explained. "Play is such a critical role in child development that creating a play environment that is both inclusive and equitable for all is a necessity."

Designing simply to meet ADA requirements isn't really enough. "Focus on universal design," Liseicki said, which means they aren't only accessible, but children and people of all ages and abilities are able to get into the space and engage with it. This means there is play variety so no matter what the child's interest, ability or attention level, there is something that meets them where they are and challenges them to grow. It also means there are different levels of play available in the same space.


For example, she said, swinging is a childhood staple and kids love to swing. Children of all abilities can swing—they may use different types of swings to accomplish this. "A standard belt swing is a great option for children who want to jump on and pump their legs to fly high." Other swing types might include a swing for a caregiver and child, or for two children, to swing at once, which can allow younger or less experienced kids to swing, and provides engagement between people. Another swing type allows children who use mobility devices to have the support and comfort they need. And finally, a 'universal' swing allows "…all children, including those with mobility differences, to get onto the multi-user swing and swing themselves using whatever part of their body is comfortable for them—arms, core or legs." This swing is also designed to provide an outlet for children on the autism spectrum with swinging actions that mimic stimming behaviors. These options mean everyone can swing together in the same space at a level that is comfortable and accessible for them.

The Build Itself


There are options when it comes to the actual build of a playground, Callison explained. The easiest for most communities is to have certified installers do the work for them. With this option, a trained crew will help prepare the site, install all the equipment, get the playground ready for the opening and turn the site back over to the community when it is complete.

"For some," Callison said, "the idea of having everyone work on the playground together is really compelling. So we can accommodate that goal with an installer or two onsite to help with a community build."

A certified installer is always a good idea even if you do a community build, Lisiecki said. Community builds can help save money and build ownership of the play space but require a lot of planning and time. Your local representative can help you decide what works best for you.

When the play environment is ready, it's time to let the kids play, she said. Signage should clearly state the rules in a format that is readable and understandable to the users you're serving. It can be fun to have a grand opening and introduce the space to the community. If there is an outdoor obstacle course or fitness area for kids and adults, it can be beneficial to do orientation sessions so everyone is using the equipment properly and gets the most out of their workout.


Sustaining a playground is really two things, Callison believes. First, it's the literal maintenance of the play structure, the surfacing and the included amenities. Your manufacturer and designer should help you set a maintenance schedule, inspect all aspects of the playground and reduce hazards that might occur if parts are not properly maintained.

"It's also about programming the space to get the most potential," he said. If you have an outdoor fitness area, why not hold weekly or monthly fitness classes for different age groups? Use a park for community health checks, 5k races or food drives. A new playground is more than a place for children to play—it's a community centerpiece and a source of pride for everyone who lives nearby.

Keep an Eye on Trends


The trend toward inclusive playgrounds is still very strong. There are a great many communities that are not set up for people with disabilities. That is an important need that every community should be addressing.

As far as other cool trends, Hare said, "there is a lot of customization being done to playgrounds these days. For example, if you are in a rural area, you might take some historical significance from the community. Why not offer some teaching opportunities on the playground? In an area with farms nearby, you might find a tractor on the playground or a silo or a cow as an educational component."


Communities are recognizing that quality of life and outdoor environments are key to attracting and keeping people in a community. Municipalities are realizing that when people are looking to move, they are looking at the parks and the amenities that they have. Municipalities have embraced doing these kinds of epic, monumental playgrounds that have it all. They are landmarks. And when people see them, families will say "Wow, we want to live here."


Parks and playgrounds have become more than just a play environment, Hare explained. They are a gathering space. A place to meet new friends. To have play dates. It really makes a big difference in a community. It shows people that they have gone over and above because they care about their community. It is something people can visually see and know that where they are moving is a place where the community cares about the people who live there. RM