Supplement Feature - April 2021
Find a printable version here

Playgrounds From Start to Finish

Fund, Design, Build

By Rick Dandes


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."