2018: A Year of Transformation and Growth

Elements of a Successful Playspace

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Enhancing physical, cognitive and social experience

An overview of elements, issues and obstacles that play experts and others have defined as central to developing a successful play area. There are many reasons for undertaking play - most important is the growth process that develops physical, cognitive and social skills.

1. Physical

  • Flexibility: Design decisions should allow for diverse activity, including games, solitary play, and play with natural elements or loose parts. Rather than building play structures that do one thing, experts note that the best play place is one that can be continually changed by the players; a stagnant place becomes an empty place.
  • Variety: Provide a variety of small spaces, changes in level, changes in surface, stairs seats, bushes, plantings, colors, textures, and overhead elements (with accessibility offered to all). More variety will also attract a wider age range. Children love the adventure and mystery of hiding places such as those found in spacious, unmown fields broken up by trees and large shrubs. Experts have noted the importance of including natural elements such as sand, dirt, water, trees (including trees to provide shade), bushes, mudholes, shallow ponds and tall unmanicured grass. Incorporating gardens that children can help plan and manage is especially popular among city children. Many natural elements have been systematically removed because of liability risks and maintenance costs. However, experts point out that placing water hoses and buckets near a sandbox permits more creative play for a fraction of the $30,000 or so that goes to a piece of equipment which regular visitors soon tire of.
  • Accessibility: A play place should be easy to reach, either by foot or public transportation, and have a visible location. Accessibility is particularly important for low-income areas, as public housing often does not offer hospitable play areas and city parks departments have difficulty managing numerous small spaces. Play experts are exploring ways to make play areas more accessible for disabled children (the 1997 EDRA conference focused on children's access to play areas). Gary Moore notes that play areas should be near other neighborhood activities (museums, libraries etc.) thereby offering a location near busy, peopled activities that are safe, have positive images and are highly visible.

2. Social

  • Wide Range of Ages: Many play areas, especially playgrounds, are designed for a narrow age range, constricting the learning and playing possibilities. Also, while there is a booming playground market, only limited play options currently exist for pre-teens and teenagers. Offering interconnected play environments with more diverse activities attracts a wide age range.

3. Cognitive

  • Creativity: Play areas need to allow children to create their own environment to allow for adventure and creative play. Adventure playgrounds provide loose parts which allow a child to create its own play environment.
  • Sense of Accomplishment: Activities should provide differing stages of difficulty so that children can choose goals which are attainable yet challenging.
  • Participation: Involve children in the process of designing new play areas. Participation of children not only results in the most appropriate location and a better finished product, but also leads to a greater sense of local responsibility for overseeing and maintaining the site (see Skateboard Park Success Story). In design sessions, use a variety of media, including verbal, written and visual, and focus especially on the use of models (see R. Hart's "The Right to Play and Children's Participation"). Darell Hammond of KaBoom! stresses that community-built playgrounds are important because the result can be a playground that will be well-loved by the entire community. Some note that community-built playgrounds across the country tend to look the same as they are catalogue structures assembled in a one-day community event. Successful community built playgrounds are those that incorporate the community in an entire process. (Please refer to the discussion by Darell Hammond of KaBoom!, as well as other sources on the web-page)

There are many simple ideas for making parks places for creative play, even outside the areas specifically designed for child play that can be done by either communities or parks departments. Some suggestions made by landscape architect Susan Goltsman include:

  • pile up the prunings and leaves so that kids can jump in them.
  • leave some areas of a park unmown (perhaps a sloped hill that would be fun to roll down).
  • time the sprinkler systems to go on when children are in the park (but use surface sprinklers that children can't trip over).

Obstacles and Solutions

Play experts suggest solutions to the obstacles that consistently constrict new play area designs:

1. Stagnant perception of play

Play experts have found that most park and school administrators seek the one piece of equipment that will require no maintenance or supervision. By continuing to provide the same playgrounds, we are not listening to the concerns of the users. Sheridan Bartlett, associate of the Children's Environments Research Group at CUNY, notes that many kids complain of boredom after they have used new equipment for a few times. Some adults, kids say, insist that they use the new equipment in a "proper" way, and do not let them run or improvise new games.


  • Clare Cooper Marcus, while an associate professor at the Department of Architecture, UC Berkeley, convinced park officials to build adventure playgrounds by asking them to recount their childhood memories of play. Nearly all recalled forts and treehouses, not parks or playgrounds. Marcus states that while she knew her students, future recreational officials, understood "at heart" what kinds of play children needed, they all were increasingly concerned about the liability factors. Marcus conducted this research in the late 1970's; play experts today state the problem is still the same.
  • The Houston Adventure Playground Association (HAPA) found that many parents were concerned that their kids were not "playing" -- not taking part in any set activities. In order to alleviate these concerns, HAPA compiled a form explaining the benefits of unstructured play -- i.e. that "just running around" is indeed play. This form was used in the playleader training program at Freed Park in Houston, TX.

2. Safety & Liability concerns

By constantly redesigning equipment to be safer, play spaces have become less and less challenging to children, ironically resulting in ever more frequent injuries as children take higher risks on equipment not meant for such activities.


  • Experts often recommend adventure playgrounds, which let different ages find their own "level" of activity which suits them best. Older children will actually discourage younger ones from activities too risky for their age.
  • Adventure playgrounds are often said to be less dangerous than traditional playgrounds because participants are more alert (Bartlett, CERG).
  • Some play experts advocate using play leaders to supervise, maintain equipment and suggest age-appropriate activities to the children. Ideally, a play area would be staffed from day one with a combination maintenance person, playleader/supervisor, community person and advocate. Hart has found that many park departments consider play leaders to be add-ons, not realizing that one can also spend less on a capital budget if there's more focus on a playleader who does more with less equipment. In most departments, staff numbers have fallen dramatically, which is all the more reason to rethink the changing roles of the remaining staff. Hart estimates that cost of a employing a playleader to be $20-25,000 a year.

3. Emphasis on Aesthetics

Some kids have remarked that adults who order the playground equipment are only captivated by the flashy playground equipment catalogues. Then once the equipment arrives on the playground, the adults don't understand why no children are not similarly captivated. Kids explain that the new equipment took the fun out of their playground; the equipment took up so much space that there was no room left for chasing people - which was much more fun than climbing the equipment.


  • A good play environment contains the elements listed above, not expensive equipment. The "children should be seen and not heard" concept is outdated in all educational and psychological fields; play experts are calling on the same reassessment when creating new play spaces.

The Play Expert's Recommended Play Area

In the early 1940s, Adventure Playgrounds were created after landscape architects noticed children were ignoring standard playgrounds, drawn instead to local construction sites and junkyards. Though there are thousands of adventure playgrounds in Europe, there are few in the U.S. They are often unpopular since they are unfamiliar looking and not designed to be attractive.

Adventure playgrounds are based on the philosophy that children should be offered a safe place where they can create and manipulate their own environment. Kids are free to alter the space. In an adventure playground, kids can paint on their projects; in a traditional playground, it would have been considered graffiti. They are often vacant lots where play materials, or loose parts such as wood, tires, sand, water or anything that might be found about are supplied instead of conventional equipment. A key component is the play leader who provides opportunities, supplies, and projects for the children, leaving the rest to the child. The play leader can also help with maintenance and safety concerns.

The Houston Adventure Play Association has found that some parents are first cautious about the free play of adventure playgrounds. Therefore, a short note appears on the bottom of their enrollment form:

If you do not agree with any of the following statements, then you should not enroll your child in the Adventure Play program: 1) It's okay if my child gets wet and muddy occasionally


2) I can provide play clothes for my child so that he/she can get messy."

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