Ultimate Guide to Planning Your Playground
Increasing access to playgrounds has provided numerous benefits for children of all ages. One of the biggest benefits of playground equipment is that it boosts the amount of physical activity kids get. Children are also more likely to use a park that has a playground, and those who visit a park that has recently installed or renovated playground equipment are more likely to be active (since the new equipment seems extra exciting!).
These days, playgrounds are everywhere – and for good reason. A paper published in Active Living Research noted that there are more than 10,000 playgrounds located in major cities in the US. That figure doesn’t include the many playgrounds found in schoolyards or parks in small towns or smaller cities in the country, but it’s clear to see that having a playground on your property increases engagement within the community, no matter what size town you’re in.
Playgrounds have certainly evolved since their earliest days. According to the National Trust for Historical Preservation, playgrounds were uncommon at the beginning of the 20th century. People that did build them didn’t design them for independent play. Instead, trained instructors used them as exercise centers or outdoor gymnasiums for children. These teachers were on hand to help organize the way kids played and to show them how to use the equipment.
Planning a playground today is a multi-step process with numerous factors to consider along the way. You want to examine the location of the playground, consider who will use it and think about ways to make it appealing and accessible to all children.
Five Things to Consider at the Start of the Playground Planning Process
At the beginning of the playground planning process, it helps to clearly outline what your goals are for the project, as well as whether your city or school has any restrictions that need to be taken into consideration. Having a general idea of these five things will help you decide what direction to take your playground.
1. Who Will Use the Playground?
Knowing who the playground is intended for will help you decide what type of equipment to install. Children play differently and are at various levels of development at different ages. For instance, a playground designed for a 5-year-old won’t appeal to a 12-year-old, and might not be the appropriate size for them. Likewise, toddlers and younger children will have difficulty using playground equipment designed for 5- or 7-year-olds.
You also want to consider the abilities of the people who will be using the playground equipment. As of 2011, all public playground facilities need to comply with the guidelines set forth under the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design.
The guidelines require a playground to have equipment that is accessible to and usable by people of all abilities. Specifically, at least one of each type of ground-level play equipment needs to be accessible. If there are elevated structures, at least half of them must be able to be accessed via a ramp or similar piece of equipment. The playground’s surface must provide adequate cushioning for falls, and must also be able to accommodate wheelchairs.
Along with the age and ability levels of the children who will use the playground, another important step involved in playground planning is to consider the number of kids who will use the equipment at any time. Will there be entire classrooms full of children using the playground during recess or after school, or do you expect a smaller crowd to be on the equipment at a time?
2. How Much Space Do You Have?
When planning a playground for your city or town, consider the space allotted for the playground. Do you have a lot of room or just a small area that can be dedicated to the playground? Will your playground consist of multiple zones or areas designated for specific age groups?
One thing to keep in mind is that the playground area extends beyond the equipment itself. You’ll also want to provide a cushioned surface that goes beyond the bounds of the playground structures. Usually, you’ll want to allow for at least 6 feet of cushioned surfacing beyond the edge of the equipment. In the case of slides and swings, surfacing a larger area is usually recommended.
3. Are You Building From Scratch or Adding on to an Existing Playground?
Another thing worth considering before you begin a project is whether you’re starting completely from scratch, renovating existing equipment or adding features to a play area and leaving the older equipment intact.
If you’re renovating an older playground, are there any elements you’d like to keep or would you like a complete revamping of all equipment? If you’re adding on to an existing playground, how much space do you have between structures? You might not have that much freedom to add on to a playground if space is at a premium.
4. What Is Your Timeline?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were most playgrounds. If you’re planning a park playground for your neighborhood, think about when an ideal time to open it might be. Starting the planning process in the late summer or early fall might make sense if your goal is to have a new playground up and ready by spring. If you’re planning a playground for a school, starting the process in the early spring would give you enough time to have it ready by the beginning of the next school year.
5. What Is Your Budget?
While you don’t want money to dictate every decision you make about the playground, your budget will influence what you can and can’t do. One of the most important things to consider is where your money will come from for the project. Do you have a set amount of funding or can you arrange fundraising projects to raise more? If it’s the latter, you might be able to set a budget based on what type of equipment you want and the size the playground, then set a funding goal.
If you have a specific budget going into the project, you’ll need to tailor your plans to fit that budget. That might mean giving up some components of the playground or limiting its overall size and scope.
Take a big-picture look at the project when you are putting together your budget. Costs involved in the playground planning process go beyond paying for the equipment and installers. You might also need to consider:
- The cost of permits
- The cost of preparing the site (such as improving its drainage or slope)
- The cost of ancillary equipment and features, such as new lighting or sidewalks
- The cost of the surfacing equipment
- The cost of shipping the playground equipment and surfacing equipment to your site
- The cost of storing any materials, surfacing or tools off-site
- The cost of installing the playground and surfacing and preparing the rest of the site
Analyzing the Site and Determining Your Needs
Your playground location influences many factors of your project. For example, depending on the slope and soil quality of the playground site, you may need to do a considerable amount of prep work before the area is ready for equipment. The location also influences the ease of use of the playground and how easily people can get to it. Here’s what to examine when analyzing the playground site:
- The slope. Most parents and teachers don’t want their kids playing somewhere that’s muddy or full of puddles. The slope of your site, or the shape of the surface, determines whether water pools in the area or drains away easily. Ideally, the slope of the site will allow water to easily flow away.
- The soil type. Some types of soil are more likely to retain water than others, affecting the drainage in the area. On the other hand, some soil types, such as sandy soil, don’t hold water well at all. While sandy soil might be ideal for drainage, its looseness can also affect the stability of the area.
- Nearby vegetation. Trees near the playground can provide shade to children and caregivers on a hot summer’s day. But you also want to think about the location of the roots of those trees and whether digging in the area will potentially cause them harm. You should also consider the quality and type of other plants in the area. While having a landscaped area by the playground can improve its appearance, you want to be careful about spraying those plants with pesticides, which can harm children. Another thing to think about is whether the plants in the area attract pests, such as rodents or wasps. If you’re going to add plants to the area, it’s best to stick with drought-resistant native varieties, which tend to require little maintenance.
- Weather conditions. Pay attention to the weather around the playground site throughout the day. Does the sun beat down on it in during the afternoon? If so, it could be unbearably hot in the middle of summer. Is the area particularly windy? If so, children might not enjoy playing on the playground.
- What’s underneath. You don’t want to hit a power or gas line when digging up the ground to install the playground. Nor do you want a utility company to have to dig up and disrupt your playground a few years after you build it. Contact utility companies in your city and confirm that there aren’t any lines or cables running directly under your potential playground site.
- What’s nearby. A playground that’s near certain features, such as restrooms, picnic tables or parking, is going to be more appealing and easy to access than a playground that’s in a far-flung corner of the park. For safety reasons, it also helps to examine how close the playground will be to major roads or highways and whether there will be any fencing or barriers installed to keep children safe from traffic.
Fundraising for the Playground
Depending on where you are building the new playground, you may need to fundraise to get the money you need to cover the costs of the new equipment and installation. Fundraising can take many forms, including asking parents at your school to chip in to cover the costs. You can also put together individual fundraisers, such as having a bake sale or a car wash, to raise money for your playground project.
Grants are another way to get funding for a playground. Finding grants can be a bit like digging for a needle in a haystack. There are many possibilities out there, but you might not know where they are or if your project qualifies for them. A few places to look for grants include:
- Local, state or federal government
- Large businesses
- Non-profit organizations
If you are going to apply for grants, the sooner you start looking, the better. Since grants are essentially free money, the competition for them tends to be fierce. Taking the time to put together a stand-out application and to explain why your group or organization deserves funding will help your grant stand out from the rest.
Another way to manage the costs of a new playground is to consider leasing equipment instead of purchasing it outright. When you lease playground equipment, you make monthly payments instead of a single upfront payment. Leasing can eliminate the need for extensive fundraising, help your organization better manage its cash flow and offer tax deductions over several years.
Choosing Equipment For Your Playground
Today’s playground equipment includes much more than just swings and slides. You can choose equipment based on age range, accessibility and theme. Playground structures can include bridges, climbing towers and play panels. You could also consider freestanding equipment, such as spring riders and geodesic climbers.
When you’re picking out equipment for a playground, it’s important to keep in mind the people who will be using it – the kids. If you’re not sure what type of equipment children will want to use, the best thing you can do is ask them. You can let children design their dream playgrounds and use those models to guide your decision-making.
Another option is to hold focus groups with kids and parents and show them different playground layouts and themes. Ask the kids and their guardians what they think of each design, what stands out to them and if they’d like to see any elements included in the design samples in the playground.
Types of Playground Equipment
The different types of playground equipment include:
- Structural equipment: Think of this as the equipment that makes up the larger structure of a playground. It can include one or more slides, towers, ramps, decks, and bridges.
- Freestanding equipment: This includes any equipment that’s not attached to the primary structure. It can include freestanding swings and slides, spring rockers, climbers and accessories.
- Fitness equipment: Fitness equipment includes structures that encourage kids (and adults) to work out while playing.
- Site amenities: Site amenities aren’t necessarily part of the playground, but help to improve the playground experience for all involved. They include things like bike locking racks, benches and trash bins.
- Inclusive equipment: Inclusive equipment makes a playground inclusive and accessible to children of all abilities. Examples of inclusive equipment include buddy rockers and roller slides.
- Shade structures: Offering some shade, such as a large umbrella that stretches over a playground structure, will help keep the playground comfortable even in the heat of summer.
Developing Playground Plans
Choosing the equipment for your playground is just the first step of your planning process. The next step is to figure out how to put that equipment together in a way that makes sense for your particular needs and that works with your budget. Usually, it’s a good idea to enlist the help of a playground design expert at this stage to help you decide which options are best for you.
A design expert can help bring your playground to life, by taking your sketch or idea and transforming it into a full-fledged playground. Here are a few components your design expert might consider during the planning process:
- Type of materials to use. Usually, wood isn’t used at all, since wood cracks and wears quickly. Metal is also often avoided. The type of material that is best for your playground might depend on where you live and the conditions of your climate.
- Style of the playground. Some playgrounds are bright and eye-catching, while others blend in with the landscaping around them. Some have distinct themes, such as fire trucks or outer space, while others are meant to appeal to a modern aesthetic. Your design expert can help you determine the best overall style to use.
- Number of components and layout of those components. Part of planning the playground will involve choosing the equipment and deciding on the size of certain areas. For example, if more 2- to 5-year-olds will use the playground than 7- to 10-year-olds, it might make more sense to have a larger tot lot and a smaller area designated for school-aged kids.
Preparing the Site for Installation
Once you have a plan ready to go, the next step is to prepare the playground site for installation. How much preparation your site needs depends on the condition it’s in before you begin your project.
If there’s existing playground equipment on the site, you’ll need to remove it if you’re completely redoing the area. You might be able to donate it to another organization, as long as it’s in good condition and lives up to safety requirements. If not, you might have to recycle it or sell it as scrap.
You may need to level the site if the slope or grade is too steep. You might also need to improve the soil to fix any drainage issues or make the ground more stable. This is also the time to call the utility companies and have them come out and mark any underground lines or give you the all-clear.
Once the soil is ready and the utility lines are marked, you can stake out the area for the playground and start digging.
Installing the Playground
You have a few options for physically installing the playground. One option is to hand the reins over to a team of professionals and have them install the playground themselves.
Another option, one that’s becoming more popular, is to have a community build. During a community build, a team of volunteers handles the heavy lifting and installation of the playground under the direct supervision of a professional who has experience in the steps involved in playground building.
Community builds have a few benefits over professional installation. For one thing, they help people feel more invested in the playground since they’ve built it themselves. They also help community organizations or local governments bond with the people they are serving. Community builds also cost less than professional installation, since you aren’t paying for labor.
Maintaining the Playground
After so much planning and effort has gone into making a playground a reality, knowing how to care for and maintain the playground can help ensure that it lasts for many years to come. Maintaining the playground equipment means following the recommendations for care and repairs. Equipment should also be inspected on a regular basis to make sure it’s performing as it should and to reduce the risk of accidents or injuries.
Beyond maintaining the equipment itself, it can be helpful to have regular events to care for the playground and the park around it. For example, you might consider holding community cleanup days, during which neighbors and members of the community come out to pick up litter, clean their playground and take care of any trees or landscaping around it. Community days will help people continue to feel connected to their park and the playground you’ve built.
If this playground planning guide has inspired you to take the next step and get a playground project underway, Miracle Recreation™ is here to help. Contact us today, and a representative from Miracle Recreation can help you turn your playground project into a reality.