Playgrounds allow children to learn and develop skills beyond the classroom. Developing a well-designed playground space that meets the necessary criteria for safety, accessibility and risk-taking can be a difficult balancing act. When done right, these principles of playground design can help improve learning and boost both physical and mental development.
The importance of playground spaces
Playgrounds act as an informal learning space and provide a safe space for children to learn and develop through play. Alongside physical skills, playground space helps children develop social, cognitive, and emotional skills that can benefit them for life.
Outdoor play also contributes towards developing better reflexes and movement control, which in turn contributes to greater coordination and balance. This carries through into later life, with increased confidence, alongside physical and mental wellbeing.
Outdoor playground space also offers children some respite from the indoor-focused classroom activities. Time spent away from classroom learning gives the brain time to relax and re-process information. It also reduces mental exhaustion and increases learning enjoyment.
Playgrounds also provide an idyllic environment for children to use their imagination and make-believe, allowing them to experiment with different ideas and identities. Children can develop a stronger sense of self, including their beliefs, morals, and principles.
The principles of playground design
Below are ten principles that are key to designing a successful playground space. Incorporating these principles can help improve the effectiveness and success of a playground space in boosting learning success.
The first principle to consider in designing a playground space for improving learning is variety.
The greater the variety in a playground space, the more opportunities children have to develop and experiment with learning through play. A playground lacking a key feature or lacking enough variety can hold back early-year development.
Branching away from the traditional swings and slides is essential for adding playground variety. Try to include elements that stimulate minds and allow children to get creative. Incorporating art-based and music-based play activities helps add variety to a playground space.
Aesthetics is another important principle when designing an effective playground space. A playground must look visually appealing in order to encourage children to play. The better a playground looks, the more children will enjoy the space and make the most of the equipment on offer.
Using colours, textures, shapes, and imagery can help improve the aesthetics of a playground space. However, while the playground design is important, you shouldn’t let it overshadow other aspects. Usability and playability should be enhanced by the aesthetics.
Playability and usability tie in with another principle of designing effective playground spaces: accessibility. Accessibility in playground design refers to easy access and ensuring a playground is accessible to everyone, including those with disabilities.
All playgrounds should be easy to access, with multiple entrances and exits. A natural flow within a playground space can also help improve accessibility by allowing for ease of movement throughout the space.
Disabled and special needs children will need to be considered in the accessibility of a playground. Accessibility is the biggest barrier preventing disabled children from using a playground space.
Different types of play
The different types of play also need to be considered when designing a playground. Children can learn and develop different skills depending on the type of play. Encouraging different types of play beyond physical and active play can help children better understand and develop life skills.
These are the different types of play that should be considered when designing a playground space:
- Active play – play involving running, jumping, or climbing.
- Sensory play – using the different senses, including smell, hearing, and sight.
- Creative play – involves creative activities, such as drawing, painting, or crafting.
- Imaginative play – letting children use their imagination to create situations or characters.
- Social play – communicating, cooperating, and sharing with others.
- Reflective play – using reflection, thinking or watching in play.
Just as comfort is important for classrooms and indoor learning spaces, the same goes for playground spaces. Playgrounds that are uncomfortable will deter children from using them.
There are several ways you can incorporate ‘comfort’ to improve an outdoor learning space. Outdoor seating should be comfortable, with sufficient surfaces for creative play activities. There should also be shade from the sun or shelter from the wind and rain. There should also be comfortable seating available for parents and children who need a break from activities.
Sense of place
Creating a sense of place is another important principle of playground design. A playground with a strong sense of place will feel connected to its community and environment. The greater the sense of place, the more enjoyable and beneficial a playground space is.
The best way to create a sense of place is to incorporate features and design elements that connect with children’s interests and passions. A themed design for a playground can help establish a strong identity, improve imaginative play, and boost critical thinking skills. Engaging the community for ideas and feedback on design elements, is a great way to develop the playground’s identity and involve the community during the early stages of development.
Safety is an essential principle in playground design and is the biggest potential barrier to the success of a playground space. Children want a safe space to explore and take risks while minimising the risk of injury.
Several factors need to be considered in terms of playground safety. These include the playground’s location, meeting the required safety regulations, ensuring that the playground equipment is age-appropriate, inclusion of safety flooring, and planning for any deterioration that can cause health risks.
Creating zones is another important principle of playground design. Zones can provide specially tailored areas with a focus on specific play activities or play types. For example, a quieter zone can provide a place for children to retreat during sensory overload.
Different zones may also focus on different play types, splitting up equipment and activities based on age, skill set, or type of play involved. The aesthetics, including the use of colours and imagery, are great ways to easily distinguish multiple zones in a playground.
Blend with nature
Blending a playground space with nature is another principle that can be utilised to great effect. Playgrounds should work with nature by incorporating natural elements into the design. Many playground features can incorporate or benefit from the existing landscape.
A playground that includes natural elements can benefit children more than artificial playground equipment. This is especially the case where nature may be limited, such as in urban areas. Try incorporating as many natural elements into a playground as possible. For example, wood, water and sand are all accessible elements that can be easily incorporated to enhance play.
Engage all senses
Our last principle of playground design for improving learning is to engage all the senses. Modern playgrounds should offer more than just encouraging physical activity. A successful playground will stimulate all the senses.
Playgrounds should feature various activities utilising smell, sound, touch, and sight. A sensory playground includes different equipment and areas that provide opportunities to stimulate each of the senses to encourage healthy exploration and learning.
By incorporating the different principles of playground design above, children can benefit from a safe environment that helps improve learning. With the benefits children can gain through play, a successful playground space is crucial for enhancing learning both inside and away from the classroom.