Feature Article - April 2007
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Special Supplement: Complete Guide to Park Components & Play Areas

A Place for Everyone

By Emily Tipping


Playgrounds provide the opportunity for children to explore their world and stretch their abilities, to develop their bodies as well as their social skills. Climbing boulders and skateparks offer similar challenges for tweens and teens. Kids can spend hours at play on slides and climbers, or skating, climbing and biking—exercising their bodies and minds while having a grand time.

But planning to include a playground is far more involved than simply deciding which equipment to throw on your park site. As with the rest of the park, you have to start by determining the purpose of the play area.

This means asking questions about the number of children who will use the park on a regular basis and their age distribution, special uses and needs, an inventory of existing equipment that can be used and any specific themes you want to incorporate into the park.

Here again, community involvement in the process is essential. They'll not only give you answers to these questions, but they also might enjoy contributing to the design process and will help ensure the playground is well maintained once it's installed.

"Different age groups have a different impact on the type of site furniture and play equipment you pick out," Calpino said. "One age group will have higher equipment that impacts the design of the fall zones. Your goal is that it looks uniform, but each piece has a different implication on the design."

The National Program for Playground Safety (NPPS) recommends selecting equipment that is age-appropriate, which means designing different play areas for three different age groups: children who are 6 months to 23 months old; preschoolers from 2 to 5; and school-age children from 5 to 12.

For the little ones, play areas can provide a place for exploring their abilities and their environment. These play areas might include places for crawling, standing and walking, but don't need to be terribly complex.

For 2- to 5-year-olds, playgrounds should have small steps and crawl spaces. Low platforms with multiple points of access, including ramps, ladders and climbers with pieces attached for grasping might be appropriate. Tables that can hold sand or water, allowing kids to work with their hands, are fun for this age group as well. Spring animals are also fun for these kids. Slides for this age group should not be taller than 4 feet, with appropriately planned fall surfacing beneath.

For school-age children, taller equipment is OK, and might also include rope and chain climbers, as well as other climbing pieces, tire swings, sliding poles and more.

When the city of Sacramento needed to upgrade its parks to meet newer ADA and safety guidelines, it developed standards of design that applied to all of its playgrounds—including playgrounds that would be built as part of any new park developments. With one to two playgrounds in each of its existing 75 or so parks, it made sense to standardize across all of those locations, rather than going back to the drawing board for each park.

Things such as space allotments and equipment heights for "Tot Lots," designed for 2- to 5-year-olds, "Adventure Areas," meant for 5- to 12-year-olds, and Combination play areas are outlined in the design guidelines. For example, for Tot Lots, Sacramento suggests 3,500 square feet with a small sand area if space allows, with no deck higher than 4 feet. For Adventure Areas, 5,000 square feet is the suggested area, with deck heights from 4 to 6 feet. A list of specific manufacturers is provided as well.

"We had to come up with some standardization," said Dennis Day, a landscape architect for the city of Sacramento. "The first thing was we selected manufacturers that we thought had the best equipment. We were looking for equipment that is durable, long-lasting, easy to maintain and easy to get parts for. Most of the playground equipment has to last for 20 years, so we have to have companies that are going to be in business 20 years from now and can get parts for us if we need them in 15 years."

Sacramento has since used its guidelines to help direct the design of an additional 60 parks.

"When the ADA and safety guidelines changed, we had to redesign 75 parks, and we had one to two playgrounds per park," Day said. "Now we have another 60 parks that we've built since those. So the city of Sacramento has around 150 parks, and each has a playground. We're designing 12 to 15 new parks a year, so we prepared these standards to give to our consultants to help guide the design."

In addition to specifying manufacturers and sizes for playgrounds, the budgets and costs for each playground were defined. Then, Day determined the specific types of equipment desired for each type of playground. For example, for Adventure Areas, Sacramento suggests slides, overhead events, a bridge, climbers, a turning or chinning bar, arch and tire swings and a roof. For Tot Lots, slides, crawl tunnels or a bridge, activity panels, tot swings and spring riders are suggested.