(Derived from an article “Creating a playground kids love” Vicki L. Stoecklin is the Education and Child Development Director with White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, Kansas City)
Designing Outdoor Spaces Children Love
We call places like this discovery play gardens to distinguish them from traditional playgrounds. While traditional playgrounds use manufactured and tightly designed play equipment, adventure play gardens – which may include some traditional play equipment – also has spaces that are informal and naturalistic. Again, it’s important to take our lead from children and to recognize how the adult point of view is different.Adults prefer manicured lawns and tidy, neat, uncluttered landscapes. Children, on the other hand, find beauty in wildness, so discovery play gardens should provide that, along with openness, diversity and opportunities for manipulation, exploration and experimentation. Children value unmanicured places and the adventure and mystery of hiding places and wild, spacious, uneven areas. They also appreciate animals, creatures in ponds, and other living things, as well as different levels and nooks and crannies, and places that provide shelter, shade, privacy and views.
New kinds of outdoor play, while they don’t require more money, do require more involvement from the people who will play in and care for the discovery play garden. Having children, teachers, parents and maintenance staff participate in the design process is essential.Involving children will assure that they feel the garden is their special place. Involving teachers assures they’ll feel ownership and use the discovery play garden as an outdoor classroom. Involving parents assures their support and shows them how the natural space and often messy play supports their child’s development. Involving maintenance staff assures that they will provide the support and assistance needed.
Create a Strong Frame with Trees: In addition to spatially enclosing the play area and creating a pleasing park like aesthetic trees are critically important in addressing the serious safety issue of sun protection. Establish a logical and functional tree planting strategy.
Multi-Use: Avoid single use features: Play equipment, surfaces, spaces and layout should facilitate a variety of programmed and un-programmed activities.
Enhance the Natural Environment: Children learn from and enjoy natural places. Create an environment where children can participate in the growth and development of ‘their’ play space. Reflect and enhance the forest character of the site, play areas should be integrated with the natural context of any surrounding forest areas.
Reshape the Ground: Establish a strategy to reshape the site topography to create non-programmed spaces of varying scales and types that will encourage children to exercise their imagination. Berms, hills and other playful ground configurations create a powerful invitation to play.
Maximize Space: Consider unused or underutilized spaces within and around the existing play area. Free-up space or join underutilized spaces together to better optimize the site.
Equipment and Props: Provide opportunities for the use and storage of equipment, toys and tools.
Accessibility and Active Play: Ensure accessibility to all major play spaces for children with different physical abilities. Make accessibility an active play opportunity for all children.
Full Season Play: Develop strategies for year round use and enjoyment of the playground. Create opportunities that highlight the seasonal change.
Safety and Security: Ensure all proposed changes and developments meet the latest safety codes and guides. Maintain and enhance opportunities for observation and supervision. Minimize hard surface areas.
Cost Effective Design: Employ simple and modest means to affect significant change.