What Is a Playground For?

What is a playground for? Fun, certainly. Exploration, without a doubt. Discovery and curiosity, yes and yes!

Whatever the answer to this question, it is clear a playground should not be an afterthought, a leftover piece of land with some equipment, fall protection and very little thought. Rather, it should be understood to be an organic extension of the space of the school, an outdoor classroom, a place for learning, engagement, social interaction…but most of all FUN. It should reflect the goals, dreams, aspirations and values of the school community, growing out of a collaborative and inclusive process that engages all stakeholders, from the youngest to the oldest. Each point of view must be reflected in the final design.

Our goal to design spaces that help schools determine what their playgrounds are for, where the input of a school’s stakeholders can be realized and shared, where users are able to connect with nature and one another directly, and facilitate those connections through interactions with materials, both natural and manmade.

There are many ways of thinking about the outdoor learning spaces of a school, and while we do not enter this process with pre-determined outcomes in mind, we can’t help but make certain observations about key qualities and elements of outdoor learning that inform our approach.

A playground needs to be safe and protected. It should promote learning, health and socialization. It should allow for rejuvenation of the mind, body and spirit. But it also needs to be integrated into the spatial logic of the buildings—acilitating transitions, celebrating exploration and engaging bodies and imaginations.

Below are five tips for designing your playground:

1. Security 

It is a sad and distressing fact that children are all too often targets of madness in today’s society. Outdoor learning spaces must be designed to provide the most effective protection possible. From opaque screens and fences to secure boundaries, controlled lines of sight and carefully selected escape routes, we take every precaution to ensure the highest possible levels of safety.

2. Learning

It is no surprise that virtually every early childhood pedagogy shares engagement with nature and the outdoors as a foundational tenet. Children are born curious, and nothing is more fascinating or more rewarding than the endless complexity of the natural world. Wind, gravity, light, water, texture, smell, momentum, balance—children learn about all the fundamental concepts of the world through experimentation using PLAY as their “scientific method.” We need only provide the context and let them choose how best to explore.

3. Health

Children are healthiest when they are active. Running, jumping, skipping, climbing, rolling, hanging, flipping, falling; these aren’t just activities that happen at full blast—though that’s true, too—but are also the tools with which to develop an understanding of one’s place in the world, and how the world works on a body. An outdoor space needs to offer a variety of surfaces for movement, from pavement to soft surfaces, dirt and grass. It should be large enough (and undefined enough) to accommodate the widest variety of modes of play, but it should also have areas that suggest more individual modes of inhabitation.

4. Socialization

It is on the playground that we learn some of the most important social lessons—how to be a leader, how to be a follower, and how to know which one to be and when; how to win (and lose) graciously; how to compete while still being a friend; how to act around adults, parents, your friend’s parents, someone else’s grandfather. While it may look like the children are “just playing,” they are learning important and influential interpersonal lessons that will shape their lives for years to come. The spaces of the playground must allow these lessons to unfold organically.

5. Rejuvenation

All people of all ages are designed to be active. If we sit too long, we lose focus, energy and acuity. Time outside shakes off the lethargy and refreshes our outlook. Whether in the form of a walk, a game, reading a book or taking a nap, the fact that the activity takes place outdoors changes our mindset and clears our mental palettes so we can tackle the tough jobs of the day. Children and teachers alike benefit from the opportunity to shake off the indoors and burn off the wiggles, allowing all to return to the classroom refreshed and renewed.

The number of different points-of-view from which to approach outdoor learning is as varied as the people who share a stake in it, and each is valid and important. At SHP Leading Design, our process is designed to maximize the opportunities to contribute ideas and viewpoints at the early stages of playground design, so that the result is a synthesis of all of them.

The outcome of this process is a set of design principles, and a consensus understanding of the character and qualities of the elements of the project, which will guide a project through to completion.

As you begin planning for a new playground, or as you embark on the redesign of your outdoor learning spaces, be sure you can answer the following questions: Who will be impacted by its design? How will each stakeholder group interact within, learn from and play in this space? And most importantly, what is your playground for?