Finding the Way to Fun

Big Ideas to Help Create Your Superior Playground

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Everyone loves a playground. Plunk down a slide and a set of swings in an open field and within a few hours it's bound to be crawling with kids. But with so many challenges to rise above and hurdles to clear (safety regulations, budgetary concerns, space constraints) how do you make that love last? What does it take to create a play space that captures the community's imagination and keeps them coming back?

Current trends and ideas in playground design are striving to do just that: make something that's unique in some way, comfortable to be in, with plenty of opportunities for creative play. Perhaps the best thing about this latest batch of trends is that you don't have to pick just one. Many playgrounds across the country are scoring extra points by incorporating a variety of engaging elements and finding imaginative ways to be both safe and exciting.

Read on for insights into current ideas in playground creation, then peruse our case studies to see these points of inspiration play out in a variety of spaces and places. There's bound to be something that will help you find fun in your own community.

Bold Trends and Big Ideas

Multigenerational Use   

In most cases safety regulations dictate (or at least suggest) that a playground offer separate equipment and play areas for younger and older children. It's true that age- and size-appropriate play options are important, but there are big rewards to be reaped when you provide opportunities for children and their caregivers to play together.

"It can be hard to play with kids if you're an adult," said Brianna Cutts, director of exhibitions at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, Calif. Anyone who has banged her head on a lower-than-expected archway (yes, I'm talking about myself here), crammed himself up the steps of a tiny ladder, or just resigned herself to endless swing-pushing (me again) in the name of interacting with their child or charge can attest that some big-person-friendly options would be welcome. "We've seen such magical experiences when kids get to play with adult caregivers," Cutts said.

All-ages options can include open spaces and landscaped areas to explore, or even large-scale sculptural works—maybe a maze?—to climb on and play hide and seek around. Just adding benches in the midst of the play space and providing shade to keep visitors comfortable can help make your playground a more welcoming destination for everyone involved.

Inclusive Environment   

The ADA has been around long enough that most parks and playground designers understand the need for accessible equipment, but it's also been around long enough that social scientists are starting to think about it differently. Perhaps it's not enough to provide access to a few pieces of play equipment. What's even better is an environment where children of all abilities can find ways to interact and play together. A 2007 study by Moore and Cosco, "What Makes a Park Inclusive and Universally Designed?", has termed this "social inclusion," and parks around the country are starting to take notice.

"Taking a playground beyond the minimum ADA requirements to truly provide an inclusive play space that provides play opportunities that are integrated, not just accessible, has become a major request," said Anne-Marie Spencer, a vice president with a Tennessee-based playground design and manufacturing firm.

Wide paths and platforms in and around play structures, a play area that includes ramps and rolling hills, and some alternative equipment like cradle swings are examples of "universal design" elements cited by the study. These are accessible to those with special needs, but inclusive because they can be enjoyed by everyone.

Natural Elements and Free Play   

Building on the current trends toward inclusive play and multigenerational play, as well as the concept that interaction with nature can be an important part of child development, another big idea on today's playgrounds is incorporating the natural world—both as landscaping to create a welcoming, colorful, and shaded scene, and as free-form elements within a space that encourage child-directed, creative play. "Pinecones become bartering tools, and leaves and loose twigs become building materials," Spencer said.

But that's not to say you can replace all your playgrounds with lovely green fields and be done with it. "Studies have shown that environments that combine nature and the built environment enjoy the highest use patterns by children and families," said Spencer, referring again to the 2007 study by Moore and Cosco. A number of playground equipment manufacturers now offer elements featuring earth-toned materials that will blend with the surrounding landscape, rather than standing out as something separate. Some even offer nature-themed pieces like tree houses or inhabitable hollow logs to further enhance the connection. And, of course, there's always the customized option, in which case the sky's the limit as to what you might create.

Consider adding plants that attract butterflies to your existing playground spaces, or plant some trees that will provide shade—and perhaps even fruit—as they mature. And a little area with sand, water and the opportunity to mix the two can provide hours of entertainment for kids of all ages.

"It's a funny thing," said Cutts. "Some playgrounds are overdesigned. They [feel they] have to be because of the need to control behavior, but if there's any way to celebrate the local environment, [do that] and then do the basics: water, sand and sticks," she suggested. "A loose stick can be anything."

Depending on how many and what kind of loose elements you decide to include, you may also want to include some "play facilitators" at your playground to be sure things are being used appropriately (not as weapons) and not vandalized or stolen.

Appropriate Challenge   

No one wants an accident to occur on their watch or to incur the public relations nightmare that can result from an injury in our litigious society, but playgrounds that consider safety alone may ultimately be doing everyone a disservice.

Paige Johnson, whose Playscapes blog keeps tabs on playground design, notes that "it's been well-documented in academic studies that making playgrounds too safe—dumbing them down too much—causes children to use them in ways for which they were not designed in order to add interest and risk to the play experience. So paradoxically, a too-safe playground becomes dangerous."

Of course safety is important—and legally required—but it should be considered in the context of risk and reward. "If we thought about risk alone, we'd swaddle all children in bubble wrap and keep them inside," she said. "But then they'd definitely be obese and unhealthy, which is no reward."

Cutts agreed that risk-taking can be a slippery slope, but one that's essential to navigate. "We believe it's critical to let kids take risks and encourage their curiosity. Ultimately, we need to build confident children, and risk taking and being free to be curious is how you get there."

However, any challenges you decide to incorporate into your playgrounds should be impeccably maintained so there's no chance that negligence or faulty equipment could be to blame for an incident, and using experienced professionals as you design and outfit your space is another way to be sure you're meeting safety codes. When in doubt, bring in an independent safety evaluator as well. Signs that indicate how elements should be enjoyed and for what ages they're meant will also help ensure your inspiring play area is used in a responsible and developmentally appropriate way.

Community Customized   

Advertising and marketing pros will tell you that incorporating a theme can make practically anything more appealing. Don's Tiki Hut gives the imagination much more to work with than Don's Bar and Grill, and an arctic-themed or jungle-themed or wilderness-themed play area will have the same effect on kids' creative brains. But even better than a theme you pull out of a hat is something that connects your playground to its surroundings and those who'll be using it. Whether it's your town's historical roots, the animals found nearby or a local legend, there's bound to be something you can draw on to make your playground stand out from the crowd as a point of community pride.

"My playground hero, Aldo van Eyck, built over 400 playgrounds on bombed-out sites in Amsterdam after World War II," said Playscapes' Johnson. "He understood that he wasn't just building spaces for play, he was rebuilding a community. A playground can be an amazing way to draw a diverse group of people, of all ages, together in a unique space that becomes deeply embedded in the communal heart. Ask yourself what local traditions the playground could reflect? What local artisans could participate in its expression? How can the playground connect to the spaces around it (hint: no fences)? How can the playground entrance be a special part of the site, signifying its importance within the community? How can your playground be unique and different?"

The members of your community may be a great source for ideas—and you'll want them involved in the planning and development of a new project anyway—so ask them what they're proud of and what they'd like to see. Do some preliminary research and narrow it to a few choices, first, so you don't have to have meetings for a year, suggested Tim O'Connor, director of Parks & Recreation for West University Place, Texas. "Consensus is something we rarely arrive at, but we do get a majority view or opinion," he said.

Then when it's time to install and get started, you can call on your constituents again. Nothing makes for a fun day of togetherness and offers a tangible investment in the play space like inviting families to help put their new playground together.

Case Studies: Inspiration Put in Practice

Rocket Park      

People living in Grand Junction, Colo., have long loved to play at Rocket Park. And as you might guess from the name, there's a space theme there. But, not long ago, Rocket Park was in need of a revamp, as some of its old equipment had become unsafe, and Recreation Superintendent Traci Wieland had to determine what to do.

Safety was the initial driving force, she said, "but it became abundantly clear that we needed to become more all-age and all-ability friendly. Watching what other communities have done and [seeing] how our community completely lacked something so basic, we recognized the need to address [these issues]."

As they began making plans, Grand Junction Parks & Recreation wisely got the town involved. "We understood and appreciated the love the community had for the old play equipment," Wieland said. "The community wanted the space theme preserved, the adaptive community and schools wanted the integrated accessible environment, and pretty much everyone who ever went to Rocket Park didn't want the old rocket to go away!"

Working to meet all of these goals, Wieland and her staff suggested keeping the old rocket at the park as a piece of artwork, rather than something to play on. "The idea was met with mixed reviews early in the process, but they were won over with the final product that now proudly marks the corner of the park property," Wieland said.

The updated safety surfacing, ramps and space-themed amenities (which include spaceship-style control panels on the equipment and rocket designs inlaid into the poured rubber surface) chosen for the new Rocket Park were more expensive than the bare basics, but Wieland said the investment was worth it. Revamped Rocket Park opened in spring 2010 and is now one of the top three most-used parks in the city. Its attendance rivals that of larger regional parks, and shelter reservations are up 30 percent.

"The safety issues have been eliminated, and the benefits are clear as we witness children of all ages and abilities playing side by side," Wieland said. "This playground and redevelopment process is now the model for future replacements and redevelopments for our park system."

Fish Creek      

Now part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Grand Prairie, Texas, was first settled in the mid-1800s, and those who live there are proud of its history. Sometime in 2010, the Parks and Recreation Department in Grand Prairie had a brainstorm.

"Our intent was to develop a historic or period-themed playground," said Steven Plumer, RLA, ASLA, senior parks project manager. "We wanted Grand Prairie specific." Although it was a challenge—nine months in planning alone—they reached their goal. "Kids can go back in time and play in an 1880s town," said Plumer of the Fish Creek Playground. "It allows their imaginations to run wild."

The community loves this play area, perhaps because they had so much input in creating it. To begin the project, students at South Grand Prairie High School researched what life in their town would have been like in the 1880s. They divided into groups to learn about native trees and plants, wildlife in the region, buildings of the time period, and possessions settlers might have brought with them from the East. The students presented their findings, via PowerPoint, to the park district, and the park district then began consulting with a custom playground design firm and their plan, which had to meet strict budget, size and safety guidelines, took 2-D and then 3-D shape.

Fish Creek Forest Preserve had been enjoyed as a nature and hiking area already, but adjacent residents were pleased to see a playground going in. As the infrastructure was installed (sidewalks, drainage, mowstrip), they often wandered over to inquire about how things were going, Plumer reported. Then on May 14, 2011, the neighbors really got involved when Fish Creek Playground came to life during a community build. Two hundred volunteers spent the day sweating and assembling the playground's custom frontier-style features, which include a treehouse, clubhouse, schoolhouse, campfire and jail.

Plumer has no doubt that the extra time and expense required for this unique playground were worth it, because the playground now brings "attention and excitement to our park system," he said. Visitors flock to explore this one-of-a-kind play space, which gives Grand Prairie the opportunity to "introduce users to our park system and show them [all] the NRPA Gold Medal-winning parks we have in the city of Grand Prairie."

Lookout Cove at the Bay Area Discovery Museum         

The Bay Area Discovery Museum is the only children's museum located within a National Park, and they have an expansive outdoor space for kids to explore. "Opening the natural world to young kids is the whole point," said Cutts, the museum's director of exhibitions. "It's safe and closed, and a child can run free. That's the heart of the museum: an outdoor destination."

Since it opened in 2004, the 2.5-acre Lookout Cove outdoor play area has been one of the museum's more popular parts. The museum's theme is "My Place at the Bay," and every element of Lookout Cove has an authentic connection to the Bay Area, Cutts explained. They have a mini Golden Gate bridge, which remains unfinished so visiting children can try their hand at construction, an old Monterey Bay fishing boat to explore, a shipwreck modeled on an actual shipwreck off the California coast, mini tide pools filled with bronze replicas of the animals you might find there, and a whole collection of large-scale, nature-based artworks.

"We're trying to trigger curiosity," Cutts explained. The art pieces encourage children to explore and tell stories via the natural world, and the icons from the surrounding area help children begin to understand and make sense of the part of the world that's their home. "For their own good, and for the future of our nation, our children need a heightened curiosity, the ability to take risks and try new things, and the joy of discovery and creativity," Museum Executive Director Richard Winefield writes in an essay titled "The Growing Danger of a U.S.-Creativity Gap." (See sidebar for the museum's suggestions on five elements of child-centered, creative play—a good goal for any playground.)

Cutts confessed that the development and installation of Lookout Cove was a long and very "messy" process that involved a wildly blown budget and a lot of custom design. In the end they were saved by a local fabricator who took the designs and created the pieces at a dramatically reduced rate. Because these were not purchased playground equipment pieces, or even custom pieces created by a traditional playground manufacturer, the museum hired an independent safety consultant to make sure everything met the proper standards.

Maintenance is another particular challenge for Lookout Cove, but one they've come to embrace. "Basically we have a living playground," Cutts said. The landscape is a big part of the play area, and all the pieces are wood as well. "Anything natural returns to nature, so embracing the cycle is requirement No. 1. It's a wonderful challenge, and it's never complete. Things are changed into other things." Even now they are preparing to reinvent and reinstall their very popular "Willow" sculpture, which includes actual living willow, some of which has now taken root. The same artist will work with the space again, but it won't be the same piece. That's part of the cycle.

Not every playground is part of a museum, but Cutts is convinced other playgrounds could embrace some more creative elements. In some cases such an effort might "become a landscape project, not so much a playground. Think about materials and how they'll be used as loose parts," she suggested. Providing programming within a play space is another way to engage kids' imaginations and keep them coming back. Lookout Cove has an Outdoor Learning Lab with programs on California native plants, local bird life, and mud and water play. "We just use it as a launch point for talking about the natural world," she said.

There's also an upper and lower portion of Lookout Cove, "and upper Lookout Cove is hard to find," she said. Many visitors come as often as two or three times a week, but it can take some time to discover the second area. Oh, but it's worth it. "It's very exciting when they do get there," Cutts said.

Fitness Playground         

The Parks & Recreation department in West University Place, Texas, is fortunate to have the nonprofit group Friends of West University Place Parks as a partner in their efforts for the community. In 2008 they developed a 10-year park and playground redevelopment plan, and since then they've been redoing a park or playground each year.

The city and the Friends purchased a five-acre former YMCA property, and in April 2010 they opened a huge fitness and recreation facility, complete with a natatorium, "but what we needed to complement those was a playground," said Parks & Recreation Director Tim O'Connor. Given the existing layout of the property, the best spot they could find was a 300-foot-by-100-foot space between the main building and the athletic field.

Because the playground is part of the fitness center complex, they chose a fitness theme to encourage those on the playground to exercise right along with the adults in the building. "Some of our play features are more challenging than traditional play features," explained Parks & Recreation Administrative Manager Susan White. The playground features a climbing wall, as well as assorted rope ladders and webs to climb. In addition, because the playground is adjacent to the ball field, there's a custom playhouse in the younger children's area that's designed like a concession stand.

Because they're in south Texas, near Houston, providing shade was "paramount," O'Connor said. So they placed the entire 3,000 square feet under a canopy. The respite from the blazing sun this creates no doubt encourages visitors of all ages and sizes to stay and play a little longer—or choose this as their destination in the first place. The park district selected an artificial turf surface, which they've found to be delightfully low maintenance, as well as keeping with the fitness and athletics theme, and they included extra padding as needed to meet NPSI standards for fall zones.

O'Connor said meeting safety and spacing requirements with the equipment was a bit of a challenge in this rectangular space. "Most of our playgrounds are free-form," he explained. They relied on the experience and expertise of their equipment provider to come up with creative solutions. "Get with a good manufacturer and installer who has a history to guide you past the traps that are so easy to fall in if you're relying on your own limited experience," he suggested.

O'Connor also believes good customer service to be essential. "You don't want someone who walks away once the install is done. There are lots of good [manufacturers] out there. Just be sure to pick one that will stay with you."

The Queenie Slide at Candy Cane Playground         

Ask anyone in Regina, Saskatchewan, who Queenie is, and they're bound to give you a smile. Queenie is—or was, actually—a Canada Goose who, along with her mate Hiawatha, was presented to Wascana Centre (the local park system) in the 1950s to begin a bird sanctuary. Most of the geese in the area today are this couple's descendants.

This historical tale is popular in the community, and a wooden Queenie-shaped slide, created by a local artist, had been a fixture at Candy Cane Playground for decades. However, over the years, the Canadian weather wore away at Queenie, and she was finally unable to be repaired. "Our old goose play element became an icon," said C.K. (Ken) Dockham, FCSLA ASLA, who is a landscape architect and director of operations for Wascana Centre. "We knew without a doubt that we needed to replace her with a new and improved version—longer lasting, better looking, more challenging and safer. We soon learned that there were no options for meeting these goals other than finding someone to custom create her to our basic specifications."

So, as part of an overall upgrade to the playground, Wascana Centre commissioned a Minnesota-based playground firm to imagine and create a brand-new version of the Queenie slide. After months of design and fabrication work, Queenie flew north and arrived at her new home in winter 2010. However, she had to wait for the warmth of spring to take up residence on her nest in the park. Queenie was finally installed and opened to the public in summer 2011.

She is 12.5 feet tall and almost 29 feet long. Her wingspan is just over 21 feet, and she now features four different slides (one is a 12-foot tunnel!), as well as several eggs in her nest, a secret entrance and an assortment of critters for sharp-eyed kids to find. Dockham said it's difficult to gauge exactly the effect Queenie has had on playground use, because the whole playground was redone at the same time. But the feedback about her has been constant and positive.

"[Queenie] is a great value for the funds expended," he said. "It's such a homogenous situation out there with playgrounds all looking the same. It's a delight for kids to see something totally different that they can relate to and adopt—things that speak to local geography, flora and fauna. Anytime park planners can get away from the cookie-cutter world, the more they can deliver something that will energize all the senses."

Creative Play Guidelines

According to the Bay Area Discovery Museum, if creative play is happening on your playground, you'll find kids:

  • Being challenged and taking risks.
  • Staying with an experience and repeating behaviors.
  • Acting independently.
  • Being delighted with their play experience.
  • Collaborating with others.

  • Imagination Playgrounds            

    Imagination Playgrounds were created by New York City dad (and architect) David Rockwell after he noticed that his own children, as well as other kids at the playground, seemed more focused on playing with pieces of things they found around the park than with the installed, constructed playground equipment itself. It's "the idea that a child is often more interested in the box a present comes in than the toy itself," said New York City Assistant Commissioner of Recreation Nancy Barthold.

    Rockwell approached the parks commissioner around 2005 and offered to design, pro bono, a new sort of playground for the city that would feature water, sand and foam blocks. Rockwell partnered with the city for a years-long collaboration process, and in July 2010, the first Imagination Playground opened at Burling Slip. This playground gets "a lot of fan mail," said Barthold, and it has become a destination for locals and tourists alike.

    While the Burling Slip playground was being developed, many were concerned about the safety and liability issues of this more unconventional, free-form sort of play. But, the Burling Slip playground meets all the safety standards any New York City playground must meet. "In one year of running the Imagination Playground, we have not had any serious injuries or safety concerns," Barthold said.

    There are plans for a second Imagination Playground in Brooklyn, but its creators also realized that "it would be good to be able to share this playground with other neighborhoods," said Barthold. And so, the Imagination Playground Box was born. With a box, "you can bring the blocks to a playground that does not have a park house, and children can enjoy it without the elaborate design and expense that the site at Burling Slip went through," she explained.

    New York City owns 11 boxes, as well as an additional set of blocks that they take to special events where children will be present. "Our 10 boxes are brought out to 10 playgrounds on Fourth of July weekend and they stay there until Labor Day," said Barthold. This year the city also purchased a box for a playground site that was going to be under construction during the summer. There was no equipment available, but there were blocks to play with on the synthetic turf ballfield. "It was a big hit," she reported.

    The Chicago Park District has also recently purchased three boxes, plus one indoor and one outdoor set of blocks. They made their debut at this past summer's Taste of Chicago food festival as an activity for kids, said Zvezdana Kubat, assistant press secretary for the Chicago Park District. After the Taste, they settled in at four parks around the city, and the fifth set of blocks continues to travel. In future summers, the boxes will "likely move from park to park to allow a variety of neighborhoods an opportunity to experience the equipment," she said. Chicago includes an onsite facilitator with each box to encourage safe and appropriate play, and Kubat said the boxes are a great addition to any park, provided there is staff available for programming and supervision.

    The box's cost is in the thousands of dollars range, "while renovating a playground costs several hundreds of thousands of dollars," noted New York City's Barthold. So, a box can be a budget-friendly option for enhancing an existing play space—or providing entertainment during playground construction or a public event. "Over the last 20 years we have vandal-proofed our playgrounds so much that it's nice to now venture out and allow children a new opportunity to use their imaginations," Barthold said.

    The Playscapes Perspective

    Paige Johnson of Tulsa, Okla., became interested in playgrounds when she was given the task of creating one for her church. At the time she was frustrated by the exorbitant budget that seemed to be required and the limited options she could find. Years later, she's given quite a lot of time to exploring, studying and thinking about creativity, play and what sort of design makes a good playground. She shares her thoughts and ideas on Playscapes, a blog found at

    The blog offers plenty of photos and inspiring ideas, but we also contacted Johnson herself for thoughts on how playgrounds can be better:

    "If I could change just one thing about today's playgrounds, it would be to make them not flat!" she said. "Simply swelling the ground plane into some gentle hills and valleys would make any installation so much more interesting, even if the playset is standard issue. Done thoughtfully with carefully considered slopes, this is no more of a maintenance and mowing issue than a flat space. And you essentially get play equipment for free: The kids can roll down the hills or crouch behind them, and a valley is a perfect place for a sandpit. Sandpiles dumped in public parks for the benefit of street urchins are where playgrounds started, actually, and they are still one of the best playground components, providing hours of play within a child's own imagination. No playground is complete without one."

    "If I could change two things, I would add natural elements to the playground along with the hills. Many playgrounds look like play deserts: bald equipment set in a sea of dry mulch—or more frequently now a sea of rubber safety surfacing. It's simple to add some areas of tall grasses with a path running through them for hiding. Or a tree. Consider a fruit tree so that kids can watch the fruit develop. A bench around the tree will allow a child to retreat from the activity while remaining in the play space; this is one of several neglected playground design concepts that can help combat bullying. Add some boulders (use local stone varieties!) that can be seats, or things to climb up or jump off or build on with sticks. If you must have some sort of border around the entire playground space to retain the surfacing, make it a track rather than just an edge so that it can be used for races."

    "A great example is Kiwanis Park in Pittsboro, S.C., where Paul Horne added new natural elements, including huge sections of a felled oak tree, to an existing traditional playspace (," she said. "Paul has also held sculpture shows within the playground, an aspect of playground programming that I'd love to see utilized more often—especially since the best playgrounds are themselves very sculptural in character (see, for example, the Belleville park in Paris"

    "Certainly, thoughtful programming enhances the use of a playground space," she added. "Good programming can enhance the idea of the playground as a community site, not just a place for nannies and toddlers. But, a well-designed space will draw in users simply through the strength of its design."

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