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The Play-Friendly Playground

Mon, 06/24/2013 - 12:01am
Last updated
2 months ago
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Girl on a play structure

The more I think about my dissatisfaction with today’s playgrounds the more I’ve come to understand that the way we design, furnish, and maintain them is fundamentally contrary to what we profess to be our intention. We say, “Welcome, here’s a place to play!” and then systematically remove anything that makes spaces really playable. Play is messy and playgrounds are neat.

Oh yes, the modern playground has swings and slides and climbers, and so there is certainly active play presented. But such active equipment meets only that narrow aspect of children’s play and does not support pretend play, constructive play, or even social play in a deep way.

Modern play apparatus is, by legal standards, segregated by age and has at least a 6-foot surrounding apron of fall surfacing, which cannot be sand, around its perimeter. These requirements impose a functional isolation and compartmentalization that results in playgrounds that are distinctly not “play friendly.” This fixation on active play to the exclusion of all else also makes these playgrounds extremely limiting for children with disabilities.

(A note to my friends in the play equipment manufacturing community: there are so many neat products that are not active play that are yet to be developed – what are you waiting for?)

If we are to make playgrounds play-friendly, more inclusive, and relevant in today’s world, we must find ways to introduce other types of play into standards-based playground designs. This intermingling of types of play within the same general area is not a new idea. Rather, I am suggesting that we take a page out of the design approaches that have been developed and proven over the past century in early childhood education (ECE) centers.

A typical ECE environment is composed of well-articulated interest zones that are configured to achieve well-articulated learning outcomes. But in these programs typically the goal of learning does not restrict the day-to-day mixing of the functions.

There is generally some form of active play apparatus in these environments but its scale will be modest and the budget for it is often as little as 20% of the total project. The other zones will include a constructive play area with blocks and other buildable systems, a creative area with a table, paints, and clay, a pretend area with costumes and props, a wet-sand and/or digging area, animal pens, and a garden. What often happens in these spaces is that loose-parts, i.e. blocks, trikes, props, will spread out and be used throughout the play area significantly enriching and extending the play.

Children's play house

One of the best examples of this type of space comes from the work of Nancy Striniste. I like her projects and you can see them at Earlyspace not only because of the high quality of the designs and spaces but also because of how she works in such close partnership with her clients.

"I like to think of it in terms of designing outdoor rooms-- each with a different feel and purpose-- there can be enclosed and protected retreats, open expanses for running and overlooks that provide views and unique vantage points. Plants and natural materials can be the raw materials for creating, imagining and pretending. And it's important to consider all the senses when designing spaces that really engage. Fragrance especially has the power to create indelible memories. 

"Adding a second playhouse and a rustic seating space along with some pickable plants transforms a little-used corner into a space that encourages language, imagination, and collaboration."

Lowell School, Washington, DC designed by EarlySpace, LLC 

Another great example of this sort of approach is the work of David Verbeck at Grassroots Playscapes.

"The most promising development has been the attraction towards landscape often referred to as natural playgrounds. To me, it is a 'how' approach, yet the emerging entrepreneurs are trying to address it as an aesthetic undertaking – again, trapped in the notion of 'what' they make – patterning after their familiarity with the equipment Industry. But as the US stumbles along to find the next step forward, the Europeans are progressing quite rapidly with a myriad of products and programs that will likely become the catalyst for raising a new breed of play innovators."

Shelters in a playground

“Well,” you say, “A public park is not a daycare center that has fences and staff. We are open 24/7 and can’t control who uses our spaces.” Fair enough. However, I contend that we can find, if we have the true intent of providing play, a middle ground where some of the richness of children’s centers can find a place in some playgrounds. I want to emphasize the word “some.” Clearly not every playground needs to be renovated along the lines I am suggesting. Many existing playgrounds work perfectly well and will for years to come. But if a district has 10 or more playgrounds, then surely one should be of a somewhat different character.


Let’s get down to brass tacks. It will be impossible to have the kind of a play-friendly play space I am advocating without fencing. Enclosed playgrounds are a fact of life in many urban settings. Enclosed playgrounds have been around for decades and they have proven to be appropriate and functional. We know how to do this.

Fencing at a playground


The kind of real play I’m talking about requires storage. While there are legitimate challenges to on-site storage like vandalism and theft, park departments have dealt with these problems for decades and have a variety of solutions from which they can draw that will work in various situations. For example, there are portable steel storage containers that, while maybe not as beautiful as we might wish, will work perfectly well. And if they don’t work out, then they can be easily moved and/or replaced.

Playground storage


If you agree with the arguments presented, then we’ve established that most park departments can manage the physical requirements needed to create a play-friendly playground. What they most often can’t is provide staffing. Or can they? What we are talking about here is not a playground issue but a recreation program like any other. Just because the program I am suggesting is for young kids on a playground, rather than older children and adults on a sports field, doesn’t make it any the less a valid recreation program. Scheduling the opening, operation, and use of the fenced play area can be organized so that it is no different than handing out sports equipment.

While a case can be made that a play-friendly playground is a legitimate recreation program, that doesn’t really solve the problem, because nearly all recreation programs have been cut to the bone. Adding a new one that takes away from other programs will just set parents against each other. We have to find another way, and there is one. Successful Rec and Park Directors have adapted to the realities of current municipal finances and been able to implement robust volunteer programs that have largely overcome the deficits that have been inflicted on their programs.

The constituency for a play-friendly playground is very different from that supporting the baseball or soccer leagues. You want volunteers to have special relationships with the children. Such a playground volunteer program will have to be started from scratch and will need dedicated participants to make it a reality. Hard? Yes. Impossible? Quite the contrary. In the modern era of social media it is possible to set up very well organized, reliable, and secure volunteer groups who can be responsible to manage the program.


Kids playing with loose parts

Most park and recreation professionals know that a play-friendly playground would be a tremendous asset to the community; however, their day-to-day battle with budgets, maintenance, and politics makes them hardened realists. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, just the situation. If you are among those professionals caught in this bind, or if you are a play advocate and want to help them move forward, there are concrete steps that can be taken right now.

It is next to impossible to make change without an example to follow. Fortunately, we have at least two excellent loose-part play systems that are suitable for public play spaces: SNUG and Imagination Playgrounds. These trailblazing products have been shown to be very popular with kids, highly durable, and an excellent use of recreation/playground dollars. Deploying one of these systems is a sure way of establishing the practicality and value of loose-part play.

Recently KaBOOM! added loose-part play systems to their program of community-built playgrounds. Their support of this concept is a perfect synergy with their robust ability to organize and inform volunteers who can provide the supervision these systems need to be sustainable.

Both SNUG and Imagination Playgrounds are generally placed into areas dedicated solely for their use and thus continue the notion of compartmentalization of play by type. I am intrigued by the idea of how these systems might be used when placed in the general area of a traditional active playground. Since these products are composed of primarily of foam, they do not introduce unreasonable fall hazards to playgrounds even if placed directly next to active equipment, so the notion of some overlap with fixed equipment is not as outlandish as it may seem.

Here is an example of what can happen when we allow mixed play types in the same playground. The school may have a rule about keeping the SNUG elements away from the play structure but even if they do, just look at where the play is happening: EVERYWHERE!

Kids on a playground

Hattie Coppard, a co-designer of the system sent us the following comment:

"The amazing thing about SNUG in Gillett Square is that it defies expectations about what is possible in a public space. There are no fences, supervision, age controls, segregation of children and adults, just large-scale loose equipment used by all ages, often toddlers and teenagers together. SNUG is housed in a container at the edge of the square and brought out at weekends and during holidays for anyone to use. This is a densely populated, poor, inner-city area and so far (touch wood) nothing has been stolen and there have been no reported accidents or complaints for two years."

Through the next month, I will contact some of the folks who have either of these systems to find out if any of them are allowing some of their loose-parts to migrate to other play areas to discover what they have learned and report back in the next column. I will also continue to explore the idea of “de-compartmentalizing” playgrounds.

Photos courtesy of Earlyspace, Grassroots Playscapes, Art and Architecture-San Francisco, Builders Outpost, KaBOOM!, Snug & Outdoor.

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There is 1 Comment
Jay Beckwith's picture

This piece is five years old and most of the comments are still relevant. There have been a few playscapes that incorporate the idea of play everywhere rather than silos but primarily in children's museums. We've seen massive consolidation in the playground equipment industry and virtually no effort to introduce conceptually new products which is disappointing. My hope is that KaBOOM! will continue their campaign of play everywhere and begin to advocate for more diverse playscapes as they have the scale and organization to launch a movement.