How to Design a Toddler-Friendly Park
All kids should have access to an outdoor environment that allows them to discover, play and explore while learning new physical, social and cognitive skills. During the early years, it’s particularly critical for toddlers to engage in various types of play to promote overall healthy development, critical thinking skills and emotional regulation.
With a toddler-friendly playground, you can provide plenty of opportunities for young kids to reap the benefits of unstructured outdoor play, including improving their awareness, fine and gross motor skills and confidence in their abilities. Let’s discuss some toddler playground equipment and features to help them build these important skills and encourage their creativity at your community park.
Designing Park Areas for Toddlers’ Gross Motor Skills
Gross motor skills are essential, foundational skills that enable toddlers and young kids to use their large muscle groups, including their arms, legs and torso, to move their bodies. Over time — and with practice — toddlers can further develop these skills to coordinate their movements and learn how to balance themselves with confidence.
Research also shows a connection between moving and learning, emphasizing the importance of giving children the opportunity to engage in movement activities in their early years. This movement can help toddlers create a mind-body connection that makes it easier to perceive how they interact with their environment. Here are some of the most common gross motor skills toddlers can learn on the playground in your park:
Toddlers should have plenty of opportunities to climb on equipment and use their legs to get them from one point to another. For example, they can climb up steps onto higher platforms to get to the slide or walk across a bridge. Toddlers can also exercise this gross motor skill as they scale a rock climbing wall on the playground equipment, reach new heights on a jungle climber or use the footholds and pedals on a spring rider.
Climbing allows toddlers to learn how to alternate their feet and distribute their weight from one leg to another. Exploring the structures on a playground will help them master this skill in no time.
While toddlers typically learn to walk between 8 and 18 months old, crawling is still an important gross motor skill. This movement teaches toddlers how to crouch down and tuck their limbs in to fit into a smaller space, using brain and body communication.
Toddlers can practice this different mode of transport with tunnels on the playground, exercising their agility while communicating and socializing with others in a closed space. If a toddler is playing with a toy on the playground or in the park and it rolls underneath a bush, table or bench, they can use crawling to quickly retrieve it.
Scooping requires arm and hand movements, such as bending to scoop up a ball or using a spoon to feed themselves. Toddlers can practice scooping and handling instruments with their hands and fingers in sand areas, such as sandboxes or sand and water tables, on the playground.
This equipment encourages toddlers to engage their tactile and sensory systems as they feel the texture of the sand and how they can manipulate it into different shapes or scoop it into containers.
Bouncing provides the use of the same muscles that allow kids to jump, which they also begin learning during their early years. On toddler playgrounds, young kids can engage in bouncing on spring riders, which lets them control their movements and rock back and forth, side to side or up and down.
Spring riders can also help give toddlers a sense of independence as they practice using these muscle groups on their own and mimic the movements adults might use when riding a horse. They can also learn how to bounce with others on spring riders that can hold multiple users at once so young kids can work together to move in a specific direction.
Scooting is a gross motor skill that works a toddler’s legs, thighs, arms and abdomen to propel them forward or backward. Toddlers might use a scooting motion when they learn how to ride a tricycle or similar equipment at home or daycare. Any type of toddler bike, scooter, ride-on or push equipment will usually require them to use their legs to move the toy and maintain balance.
On the playground, toddlers can use this same motion on the spiral or double-entry slides as they scoot themselves to the edge before sliding down. Some toddlers might see the slide as a challenge and decide to scoot down the entire way instead of sliding until they get the hang of it.
While toddlers might learn how to kick around a ball in the grass during daycare or at home, they may be able to enhance this gross motor movement on the playground even more. Toddlers can learn how to pump their legs on bucket swings and feel as they gain momentum when they kick harder and harder in the air. Over time, they’ll learn that their legs control how fast or high they swing and allow them to adjust to slow down or speed up.
Encouraging Play in Toddler-Friendly Playgrounds
Encouraging outdoor play for toddlers has significant benefits. On the playground in your park, toddlers will learn how to use their limbs and muscles to navigate from one platform or structure to another. Other physical developments toddlers can experience during play include:
- Learning to walk backward.
- Jumping in place.
- Climbing to new heights.
- Exercising small and large muscle groups.
Toddlers will also learn behavioral and social skills while playing on a playground, including:
- Learning how to express their emotions.
- Cooperating with others.
- Sharing and taking turns.
- Engaging in storytelling and sharing ideas.
- Interacting with new people.
- Forming relationships with friends and adults.
In addition to these critical developmental skills, toddlers get to engage in different play types that shape how they interact with others and their environment. While most assume playing on a playground focuses primarily on physical growth and enhancement, the different types of play styles in toddler-friendly playgrounds introduce kids to even more benefits and opportunities. Here are some of the most important types of play toddlers can experience on a playground:
Active play relates to kids’ physical movement and engagement on a playground. This type of play includes any way that toddlers move their bodies on a playground, such as:
Active play is critical for young kids to grow and develop properly, strengthen their muscles and bones and promote a physically active lifestyle. You can encourage this type of play on your playground by providing different structures that let kids challenge themselves and achieve new goals, such as:
- Steps and platforms.
- Spring riders.
Sensory play allows toddlers to interact with the world through their senses. They can learn and practice these skills by seeing different colors and touching various textures on a playground with play panels and other sensory equipment.
Sensory play can help kids further develop these senses and enhance their tactile, cognitive, perceptual and motor skills while playing with others and accommodating their curiosity. Types of playground equipment or features that invite sensory play include:
- Sensory panels with textured shapes and colors.
- Structures that produce sound or music.
- Sensory walls that feature visual play.
Whether a toddler plays with one other kid or a group of friends, social play encourages social interaction and helps kids learn how to engage with others their own age. The playground provides the perfect opportunity for social play and promotes sharing, cooperation and taking turns. For example, toddlers have to wait their turn to climb up the steps and slide down the slide. They might also have to take turns in the sandbox or on the swing.
Social play is important for toddlers because it teaches them how to consider other people’s perspectives, thoughts, feelings and ideas. Social play — or peer play — on a playground can help toddlers learn how to regulate their emotions and overcome problems or conflicts.
Creative and Imaginative Play
Creative and imaginative play, or pretend play, allows toddlers to express themselves by acting out imaginary scenes and adopting roles and characters. For example, toddlers might pretend to be an animal, pirate, firefighter or anything else they may have seen in their favorite book or TV show they engage with at daycare or home.
Creative and imaginative play allows young kids to communicate and connect with each other using different games and can even help them become more confident expressing their emotions and thinking in abstract ways. Playground equipment and features, particularly themed products, provide unstructured play and freedom for toddlers to use their imagination.
Reflective play may be a lesser-known type of play for toddlers and young kids. This type of play consists of playing quietly with others or with oneself, including:
You might see this type of play on a playground with toddlers who prefer to find a quiet spot in the sandbox or crawl under a play tunnel and relax after exerting their energy.
Designing Park Areas for Families
Designing a park for toddlers also means keeping families and supervising adults in mind. It’s important to consider what families may need in addition to playground equipment and structures for toddlers to engage in. These considerations will help keep families comfortable during their time at the playground and encourage them to spend more time there.
Sightlines and Seating
Sightlines are the vantage points around the playground where supervising adults can maintain a clear view of toddlers and kids on the equipment. These sightlines are critical, particularly for larger playgrounds, so adults can pinpoint their children or students from where they’re sitting or standing. Sightlines allow adults to keep an eye on toddlers without following them directly on the playground equipment, letting kids gain some independence while staying visible at all times.
The best way to determine sightlines is with playground seating. Seating areas are where parents and adults can relax and socialize with others while watching toddlers. Adequate seating is also important to allow toddlers to take a break from physical activity and drink water or have a snack at one of the picnic tables before rejoining their friends.
Shade structures are a critical part of all playgrounds for families. During the spring and summer months, temperatures rise, and sunny days can make it challenging to stay at the playground for too long. With shade structures around playground equipment and seating areas, toddlers, kids and families will remain cool under the sunshine and spend more time playing and enjoying the outdoors.
Shade structures also help keep everyone dry during rainy weather and allow them to wait out the cloudy showers before returning to the playground for more fun.
Access Points and Pathways
A playground for preschoolers and toddlers should have plenty of access methods to play equipment to avoid crowding on or around the structures. In addition, there must be designated areas for toddlers and adults to enter and exit the play area. There should also be plenty of pathways to guide toddlers around the play equipment with enough clearance room to accommodate those playing and those walking by.
These access and exit points around the play equipment should also accommodate parents and adults. Some toddlers may need more help than others as they learn to navigate new structures or engage in physical movements, such as pumping their legs on a swing or climbing up steps to go down a slide. Having plenty of room for adults to support toddlers if they need to demonstrate how to use equipment will make it easier for them to move around and avoid congestion on the playground.
How to Organize a Park for Toddlers
It’s important to have separate areas for younger kids to access age-appropriate equipment and freedom to explore. Creating separate areas for toddlers to engage in different activities helps designate specific parts of the playground meant for varying types of play.
For example, you may want to create separate areas for conflicting activities, such as one for imaginative, quiet play and another for active, engaging play. You could design this by placing pretend play sculptures and structures on one side of the playground and swings, slides and climbing equipment on another.
This thoughtful design and placement can also encourage separate areas for individual and group play in your space to accommodate different energy levels. For instance, some toddlers may prefer to explore independently or play with panels and structures in their own time, while others might have high energy that motivates them to try every structure and talk to everyone they see.
This separation lets kids enjoy being physically active and energetic with their friends while allowing others to sit somewhere quiet and draw or play with one other friend. If your playground design combines all of these areas into close proximity, some toddlers might not feel comfortable exploring the equipment on their own.
While toddlers will likely know the other kids on the playground if they’re in a daycare setting, they may feel shy trying to engage with others on a public playground. Having these separate areas gives everyone enough room to discover their curiosity and imagination and allows them to practice their fine and gross motor skills at their own pace.
Tips for Designing Parks for Toddlers
Many different elements go into the park’s design, such as the location, amenities, type of playground equipment and the age group that will be visiting the park. Here are some tips to keep in mind when designing a park for toddlers:
Exposing young kids, particularly toddlers, to elements of their outdoor environment is essential for helping them grow and develop an appreciation of nature. Incorporating nature in your park ranges from the location to landscaping to nature-inspired playground equipment structures. Consider how you can implement your site’s existing nature to surround toddlers as they play on the equipment or relax under the shade.
For example, position play panels or sand and water tables under existing trees to keep kids cool. This will protect kids from the heat of the sun and minimize the glare they might see while trying to navigate on the playground.
You can also determine other areas to add flowers or plants so toddlers can interact with nature as they develop skills on the playground. When you consider the environmental features of your park, be sure to think about where adults might have the best visibility while watching their toddlers.
Positioning seating and park benches underneath trees or near some brightly colored flowers can help toddlers and parents or supervising adults keep an eye on each other throughout their time at the park. If your park location has an abundance of natural features, consider how you might integrate them into your design before removing them, and develop creative ways to allow toddlers to see more of the natural world in your park’s layout.
Incorporating nature allows you to find the most efficient and beneficial use of your proposed park space while introducing toddlers to curiosity and a relationship with the natural world.
Choosing the right playground surfacing is an essential component of playground design that can’t be overlooked. While the right playground surfacing will certainly change the aesthetic of the playground, its primary purpose is to provide protection against falls and prevent serious injuries. The right surfacing is also mandatory to meet ADA regulations for kids and adults using mobility devices.
Playground surfacing options like rubber and engineered wood fiber (EWF) help protect toddlers from harm should they fall while playing. Two main types of playground surfacing include:
- Unitary: Unitary surfaces include materials like poured-in-place rubber or rubber tiles that provide a smooth surface for easier accessibility for toddlers with wheelchairs or mobility aids.
- Loose-fill: Loose-fill surfacing often consists of loose natural pieces such as engineered wood fiber or rubber that fill the playground and are usually contained by a perimeter to keep them within the playground.
Remember the Basics
Practical elements and site furnishings around the playground can enhance your layout and make your park more inviting and comfortable for all guests. These components provide the convenience that allows guests to stay longer and encourage them to return for more playtime.
Here are some basic elements and structures to consider:
- Trash cans
- Water fountains
- Benches and tables
- Signage with park and playground rules
- Bike racks
These options will differ depending on the size of your park and the amount of space you have for these amenities after designing your playground area. The playground equipment will certainly be the main attraction, particularly for toddlers who can’t wait to explore and discover the different options they have for outdoor play.
Contact a Miracle® Recreation Representative to Request Toddler-Friendly Playground Equipment
At Miracle Recreation, we want to bring the thrill back into playgrounds while supporting the growth and development of toddlers throughout all stages of childhood. Our customizable, themed and sensory equipment options let you design a playground that fits your needs and complements the other features in your park. We also offer site amenities, such as park benches, tables, access ramps and shade structures to keep guests and toddlers cool and comfortable during their visit to your park.
Whether you want to design the entire layout of your park or focus on developing the main attraction — the playground! — Miracle Recreation can help you create an enjoyable, durable and high-quality experience for everyone in your community. Browse our playground equipment for toddlers and preschoolers to see the options we have specifically designed for this age group. You can also find a Miracle Recreation sales representative near you to learn more about our products and how we can help you engage your visitors through play and exploration.