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What are the 7 Secret Key Elements in Imagination for Building a Better Playground?

by Kevin F. on January 2, 2015

As landscape architects, we get to design all kinds of cool things. Depending on the kind of office we work in or what our specialty is, this can vary quite a bit. Something we’ve been doing a lot lately at Schneider Geomatics are park projects. These park projects typically involve some type of playground space. I’ve found these playground spaces to be quite enjoyable to work on. Projects like this, from time to time, give us the chance to get back in touch with the kid that’s hiding inside all of us. As adults we often keep that “inner child” bottled up and never really get a chance to let them out. Working on a project like a playground gives the designer a chance to think like a kid again. Maybe even let that little voice inside roam free for a while. I’ve found this can be very rewarding; and fun on top of that. Quite honestly, I think FUN is something we could all use a little more of in our daily lives. So, this got me to thinking, what is it that makes a truly successful playground? What do kids (of all ages) want to be there? What types of spaces get used the most?
To be honest, most of the field of play is focused on things like safety, liability, cost issues, and pre-manufactured play equipment. Not that these things are not important, they are all very important, especially safety. It is essential that we design safe environments for our children to play in. However, I think many designers have gotten so caught up in these issues that they forget about the most important thing; the design. I feel this has led to some rather sterile playground designs in recent years! This is unfortunate in my opinion. A truly missed opportunity! Most of the companies that manufacture large play equipment are doing a better job of creating better play elements over the past few years. However, a few pieces of equipment do not make a play space. A true play space is made up of a variety of play elements and activities. Additionally, there is one thing that every play space must have to be successful. I’m talking about the one thing that every child has that uses it. IMAGINATION!
To a child, play is a time to learn, create, and discover within an environment that they can manipulate. So, any playground design must provide them with those opportunities. One of the more popular design concepts in the world of playgrounds currently is the “Adventure Playground”. This is, typically, a themed play area with the climbing, jumping, sliding, etc., built into the design. These types of play areas may feature elements such as a large pirate ship or a fort to climb around in. In addition to providing play and active elements, opportunities to use ones imagination come into play. This is something I think Schneider Geomatics did a good job of recently at the playground at Founders Park (pictured) in Carmel, Indiana. No matter what the elements incorporated, I would say the most important thing is to use your imagination. Allow yourself to think like a child. Remember what you liked to do when you were young and decide how you may be able to incorporate it into the design.
In addition to an active imagination, here are a few other ideas about some elements to be incorporated into play spaces to make them more successful:
  • A Diversity of Play Spaces –Children have different needs and different things they like to do. So it is very important to incorporate a variety of play elements in any space. The space is typically used by different age groups as well, so make sure to think about the tiny users, as well as the bigger ones.
  • Incorporate Active and Passive Play Areas – It is often just as important to incorporate passive play spaces as well as active. Think about incorporating areas like an open field for kids to simply run or throw a ball. Or maybe incorporate a tree of some kind. After all, trees are the original monkey bars.
  • Incorporate Learning Opportunities – This goes along with imagination, but play is a great time to learn as well. Think about including something like a large map, or a small water feature that is built to look like a stream. These can be great opportunities to teach children about their surroundings.
  • Bring Nature into the Playground – This is especially important in more urban areas. A patch of sunflowers, a grove of trees, some native plantings or a sustainable rain garden. These can all be incorporated into play environments and gives children an opportunity to explore and learn at the same time.
  • Changes in Elevation – This may seem obvious, but something as simple as a hill can be a great play opportunity. I can remember times just rolling down the hill seemed really cool as a child. It also provides for activities like sledding in the winter or climbing, in addition to being another opportunity for an active imagination.
  • Views are always Critical – Views are not only important to draw kids in as they play, but very important for adults. Providing passive places where adults can supervise, but still be out of the play area is critical. As adults we need to feel we can easily supervise our children.
  • Accessibility and Safety – Obviously these are critical elements. Any spaces we provide must be safe for children to use. It is also very important to make sure all can be involved in the play. Playground equipment companies have made great strides in these areas over the past 10 years.  Make sure you thoroughly investigate all requirements and opportunities in this area.
So, the next time you have the opportunity to design a play space, remember to bring your imagination.  Your users surely will.