Playgrounds are important elements of healthy neighbourhoods and communities. Successful playgrounds provide safe and challenging environments for children to learn about the world around them and about themselves.

Types of Playgrounds

Playgrounds fall into three primary categories: neighbourhood, school and regional. A neighbourhood playground serves a local community. School playgrounds are areas designated for use by the student body of a specific school. A regional playground serves a wider area, such as a group of neighbourhoods or an entire metropolitan area. Regional playgrounds are often elements within a larger outdoor development that includes public parks or athletic fields. Each type of playground offers a unique set of characteristics that affect its design and the activities appropriate for inclusion.


Consider the following points while selecting a playground location.

  • Locate playgrounds in safe proximities to roadways to reduce the possibility that a child could run into the street or that a distracted driver or car collision could propel an automobile into the play area.
  • Place bike paths beyond the immediate perimeter of a playground to prevent children from running into the path of cyclists.
  • Locate playgrounds within sight of adult activity areas, such as picnic areas, so that the adults can provide a level of security and supervision. However, provide appropriate distances so that playground noise is not disturbing to other areas.
  • Site playgrounds on the same sides of a roadway as support facilities, such as restrooms, picnic areas, concession stands or ball fields. As children run from one to the other, they may not watch for oncoming traffic.
  • For neighbourhood playgrounds, a rule of thumb is to assume a playground is accessible to walking children within a one-quarter-mile (0.4 kilometre) radius of the playground.
  • Minimize site development costs by selecting relatively level land that is not densely vegetated.


To determine the amount of space for a playground, first determine the average number of children expected to be playing on the playground at the same time. As the amount of square footage provided per child increases, the number of injuries has been found to decrease. The table indicates varying levels of quality based on the amount of square footage provided per child. These guidelines include the minimum 6 foot (1.8 meter) recommended safety zone around the perimeter of all play equipment.

Playground Zones

Current trends in playground design acknowledge that children choose to play in many different ways. This should be reflected in playground design. Include a variety of areas that feature different play activities. Today’s playgrounds should seek to incorporate a variety of activities or zones. Depending on factors such as playground type or the level of supervision anticipated, some zones will be appropriate for some playgrounds and inappropriate for others. One zone may be more developed or emphasized on some playgrounds than on others. For some playgrounds certain zones may be inappropriate. The following list of zones is an inventory of potential activities to be considered for inclusion on a playground. This list can be used during programming to discuss the appropriateness and means of inclusion of each selected activity.


The playground entry area is a definitive and recognizable transitional space. It may be a transition from the inside of a building to the outdoor play space or it may be a transition from one type of open space, such as a picnic area, to the play area. The entry area allows a child to assess the playground environment and the other children who may already be engaged in play activities and to decide about the manner and time in which he or she wants to integrate. The entry area may be defined simply by an open area or further distinguished with an entry gate or arch.

Water Play

The introduction of water play provides a unique play experience each time the child comes to the playground. Water enlivens a child’s imagination and serves as a natural interactive activity, responding immediately to a child’s actions. It can be a simple water table that is filled and drained at the end of each day, allowing a child to interact with hands and arms or a water feature that allows a child to become totally wet. Water features can be manufactured products or naturally occurring streams. Lockable hose bibbs, useful for washing off hard surfaces or watering the landscape, can also provide water play by serving as a means for filling buckets and combining water and sand play.

When considering the inclusion of water play, factor in the type of playground being developed and the degree of supervision anticipated. School playgrounds used only when adult supervision is present are more valid for the inclusion of water play features because of the increased amount of supervision. Even in this case, the water feature should be located so that it is highly visible. Providing water play activities in neighbourhood and regional playgrounds where supervision may not be present at all times should receive serious consideration as to the safety and legal issues involved.

Sand Play

Like water, sand provides a child with a unique experience with every visit to the playground. It is an especially favoured activity of young children. It can be enjoyed alone or with other children, making a sand play area very adaptable to a child’s level of social development. Sand play has also been found useful in developing fine motor skills that translate to a young child’s ability to hold pencils and crayons and manipulate scissors. Include devices to shade the sand area during the hottest part of the day and storage for toys to be used in the sand box. The sand should be either covered nightly or inspected at the start of each day to keep the area free from litter, debris and animal feces.

Dramatic Play

Dramatic play areas encompass a wide variety of activities. Foremost is the act of role-playing, an especially favoured method of play among four to six year olds. Imitating adults as they play house or store gives children a script of sorts and a framework for interaction. The structures that promote and support this type of play can be abstract in shape, allowing children to use their imaginations or they can be more definitive in appearance such as a playhouse or a store. This area also offers opportunities to include activities and components that reflect important aspects of the community where the playground is located, giving the playground a unique character.

On supervised playgrounds, providing props such as dress-up clothes, empty food boxes and tables and chairs can further enhance the richness of this play experience. However, provide a means of lockable storage nearby for such items. This area may also include events that feature music, art and theatre related themes. For example, a small stage or chalk wall, or a set of hanging chimes or cymbals may be provided. When musical or noisemaking activities are provided, locate these activities so that the noise will not be disruptive to other activities occurring on the playground. Structures built to enhance dramatic play should have an open design and be easily monitored and accessible to children and caretakers.

Hard Surfaces

Some activities such as bouncing or dribbling a ball, riding tricycles or pushing wheeled toys, require a hard surface. They can be in more than one location on the playground and can double as a circulation system through the playground. However, “roadways” should be laid out in such a way as not to create a potential conflict with an active play area of the playground. In addition, do not locate hard surface areas under or within the “fall zone” for play equipment. Hard surfaces can be constructed of packed earth, concrete or asphalt. Each material has advantages and disadvantages.

Packed earth maintains a natural look and when children fall it is less likely to scuff up knees and elbows. However, it can become muddy, making areas of the playground unusable until they dry out or drain. Concrete provides surfaces that can be painted with sidewalk games or used for sidewalk chalk art. It is also durable and sheds rainwater quickly. However, falls onto concrete can result in scraped knees and elbows. Asphalt, although typically less expensive, retains heat during the hot summer months. Environmentally sensitive alternatives include pervious concrete products that allow rainwater to drain through them.

Big Loose Parts

The big loose parts area features large elements that children can manipulate and configure in an infinite number of ways, creating their own unique play experiences and structures. This zone requires an open area of safety surfacing supplied with wood boards and planks, crates, and large boxes that have been checked for safety hazards, such as splinters, nails and staples. There are also manufactured big loose parts systems available that, while more expensive, offer a higher degree of safety and durability. This area requires supervision to prevent children from constructing dangerous situations. It may not be appropriate for inclusion on playgrounds in which children may play unattended. Adequate storage is also needed within close proximity to store the materials between uses.

Gross Motor Play

Gross motor play includes the types of activities most commonly associated with playgrounds. Today’s playgrounds are typically furnished with a large manufactured or custom-built play structure that features slides and monkey bars, bridges and tunnels. When selecting play activities to be included in the gross motor zone, create a balance of activities that will exercise both the upper and lower body. In addition, play equipment for this area may be intended for use by children ages five to twelve or in the case of a school playground, grades one to six. Provide activities that offer varying levels of challenge because the range of physical abilities of children within these age groups varies greatly. The play structure should be manufactured and built according to the safety standards recommended by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and be designed to meet the requirements of the peoples with disabilities.


Swings can be a traditional type that move back and forth, or a piece of equipment that pivots from a single point, such as a tire swing. Swings are one of the most favoured activities and one of the most used pieces of equipment on a playground. They are well liked by children and adults alike. However, swings are also one of the top causes of playground accidents. A major source of swing related injuries is children running into the path of a moving swing. In addition to the recommended safety zone around swings, install barriers along the edges of the safety zone parallel to the supports of the equipment and along one end. This technique is especially helpful on compact playground sites or on playgrounds where the swing zone is centrally located. These barriers can be hard materials such as fencing or natural barriers, such as dense landscape planting. Barriers along the sides of the swing area force entry into the swing area in line with the path of the swings, eliminating the possibility of running into the path of a moving swing. A barrier along one end of the swing zone eliminates the potential of a child running through the swing zone.

Social Spaces

Social spaces are spots located throughout a playground that encourage and support social interaction between children and between children and adults. These spaces should be of various sizes to accommodate small and large groups. School playgrounds may even have an area that accommodates an entire class. Social spaces should also feature a variety of character. One may overlook the playground from an elevated platform, while another may be a quiet, shady nook next to a tree. When furnished with strategically placed benches, some can double as locations from which adults can monitor the playground.

Natural Elements

Integrate natural objects and settings into the playground to add to the aesthetic and functional success of the playground. Currently, there is an influential movement in design that encourages making natural elements the prominent focus of the playground in order to create places that provide for play, learning and environmental education for children. Natural elements may include trees that provide shade and social spaces, and large boulders children can climb and sit on. An open field for running and playing games, such as kickball and tag, is invaluable.

Creeks provide a unique and rich outdoor experience. They may be incorporated into playgrounds that will be closely supervised when in use. Raised vegetated beds can deter children from running through and harming growing plants and the perimeter of the planter can provide seating. When planning to incorporate natural elements into a playground, consider how, by whom and how often these elements will be maintained, so that their nature and heartiness will correspond to the level of care and maintenance. The installation of an underground irrigation system may also be considered as part of the maintenance program of these areas. It may also be necessary to provide storage for any maintenance equipment.

Safety Amenities

Several safety amenities and issues need to be considered and incorporated throughout all areas of the playground.


Placed around the perimeter of a playground, a barrier is advantageous for several reasons. Perhaps most obvious, it keeps children, especially young children from wandering away from the playground area into surrounding developments. A barrier also establishes a point of entry into the playground, creating a sense of place and providing supervisors with an easier means of monitoring who is coming and going from the playground. Within the playground, using barriers can increase the safety within the swing area and can effectively separate toddler play areas from those of older children.

The physical nature of the barriers, both around the perimeter and inside the playground, may vary depending on the degree of separation desired. For the perimeters and the swing zone, an impenetrable barrier such as an impassable fence or dense landscape planting is appropriate. Around the toddler play area, the barrier may be less formidable. It may consist simply of a wide strip of landscape planting or a small mound. However, for playgrounds featuring a toddler play area, many caretakers of children playing in the toddler area may also have children playing in the larger play area. Therefore, the barrier should not obstruct or eliminate visibility between the two.


One of the most critical components of a safe play environment is the surfacing beneath and around play equipment. There are two types of surfacing that meet recommended safety standards: loose fill materials and unitary materials. Loose fill materials include sand, gravel, shredded wood products and shredded tires. Unitary materials include rubber mats and poured-in-place rubberlike products. A critical height is the approximation of the fall height below which a life-threatening head injury would not be expected to occur. For a playground, the critical height is the height slightly above the highest point from which a child might fall from a piece of equipment onto the ground. When using unitary materials as a playground surface, request test data from the manufacturer that identifies the critical height of the material because different materials in this category have differing shock-absorbing properties.


Provide a sign that communicates the hours of operation, the level of supervision provided, the age appropriateness for different areas and pieces of equipment on the playground, and any other rules regarding expected behaviour while using the playground. Locate the sign in an obvious and highly visible location of the playground, such as the entry zone. Information about whom to contact should unsafe situations occur may also be listed.

Observation Points

Provide locations throughout the playground that allow those monitoring the play environment to do so effectively and comfortably. Often simply strategically placed benches, these areas can also serve as social spaces for adults and children to interact. Seating should be placed in such a way as to allow unobstructed views into and around the various pieces of equipment. This feature can be further enhanced by siting play structures in such a way as to maximize the sight lines from observation points to the play equipment.


Provide lighting to extend the playground’s usable hours, but be aware that doing so can raise additional safety concerns. Therefore, ensure light levels ample enough to make all areas and play components fully visible, without dark spots that may obscure parts of play equipment such as ladder rungs and handholds. If lighting is not provided, post signage stating that the playground closes either at a certain time or dusk and continuing to play past that time is at one’s own risk. Bury electrical service lines for lighting underground.


Install a means of communication, such as a telephone or an emergency call box, on or near the playground so that medical services can be reached in the event of an emergency. This may be especially appropriate for neighbourhood playgrounds on which children may often play unsupervised by adults. Bury electrical service lines underground.

Comfort Amenities

It is essential to provide for the physical comfort of both the children using the playground and those supervising. This will add to the enjoyment and amount of time spent at the playground.


Tables provide places for picnic lunches and card and board games. For school playgrounds, tables offer a place for students to do schoolwork outside. If desired, enough tables could be set up to accommodate an entire class, thereby allowing the playground to function as an outdoor classroom.

Water Fountains

Provide water fountains for drinking water because the playground will typically be used during the hottest parts of the day. Water-misting equipment has become a common method to cool off playground users.


Provide shade, through shade trees, umbrellas, awnings, or gazebos, as a cost-effective and valued means of creating cool areas. Many manufacturers of playground equipment also offer shading devices that can be attached directly to play structures, providing cool spots for children in the active play area.


Restrooms are perhaps the most often used and requested amenity of playground users. Including restroom facilities on or near the playground depends on the type of playground, as well as the plans for maintenance. Playgrounds located near buildings, such as schools, may not need to provide separate facilities on the playground if the distance and path from the playground to the building can be easily monitored. For larger, regional playgrounds, restrooms are highly recommended. Often these restrooms will serve additional areas around the playground, such as picnic areas and ball fields. Locate the restrooms as close to the playground as possible. Never require a child to cross roadways to access them. It is helpful to those supervising more is clearly visible from the playground. This allows older children to be visually monitored as they go to the restrooms without assistance. If providing restrooms on neighbourhood playgrounds that may not be monitored or used continuously, address maintenance and security issues because the playground may be more susceptible to vandalism.

Service Amenities


Depending on the type of playground, activities provided, and maintenance arrangements, on-site storage may be required. Typically, playgrounds that are supervised during use, such as school playgrounds, benefit from on-site, easily accessible storage. Storage may be required for items and toys used in the water play and sand play zones, props for the dramatic play zone, and materials for the big loose parts zone. Balls, jump ropes, Frisbees, sidewalk chalk, and other miscellaneous toys may also be stored. Gardening tools for use in garden areas maintained by the children should be stored. Brooms and rakes may also be available to allow children to contribute to playground maintenance. First-aid kits, bug sprays and sunscreens may also be stored on supervised playgrounds. Storage areas for playground equipment should be secured when the playground is not in use. If maintenance equipment is to be stored on the site, it should be stored separately from the playground equipment. Maintenance storage areas should remain locked except when the playground is being maintained.


Trash receptacles should be located throughout the playground. They should be convenient to areas most likely to generate trash, such as the entry, table and seating areas. Playground maintenance should include trash disposal as often as needed to reduce litter, odours and insects.

Bike/Car Parking

The manner in which people will be arriving at the playground should be considered and provided for accordingly. For neighbourhood playgrounds accessed mostly by walkers and bicycles, sidewalks and paths should lead to the entrance of the playground. Bicycle parking racks should be provided. School playgrounds typically do not require car or bike parking unless they serve as neighbourhood playgrounds during non-school hours. Regional playgrounds do require car-parking areas, which should be designed to minimize the potential of a child entering the path of a moving car while running between the car and the playground.

Electrical Power

Depending on the anticipated activities, convenient access to electrical power may be desirable. For school and regional playgrounds, electrical service may allow for outdoor activities that use projection or microphone systems. Bury electrical service lines underground to prevent the possibility of a sagging or downed power line lying near the play area, and to eliminate a power pole that some children might use as a climbing device. Use weatherproofed and lockable exterior electrical outlets. Make them inaccessible to children.


Many playground injuries result from a lack of maintenance of playground facilities. The design of the playground should include a maintenance process for the playground and its components and materials. This information will influence the selection of playground activities and materials. A document delineating required maintenance procedures and time frames for products or systems used on the playground should be developed during the design phase for use by the client upon completion of construction.

Age-Appropriate Playground Areas

The manner in which children play and the types of activities enjoyed depends greatly on their ages. Therefore, on playgrounds where toddlers and older children will be playing, separate play areas should be developed for both age groups. This is a function of safety and a means of providing age-appropriate activities and appropriately sized equipment for each age group. Programming a toddler area should proceed similarly to programming a playground for older children. Each area listed above should be discussed as to its appropriateness and, if included, developed at a level suitable to this age group. The less active play activities and the dramatic play events take a more prominent role in the toddler playground. These areas also serve as transitional activities for young children between the toddler playground and the main playground.

If a large number of teens will use the play area, consider providing play opportunities that reflect the activity interests of that age group. Consider providing an increased number of places for socializing. Facilities for “extreme sports,” such as rollerblading, skateboarding and freestyle biking, may also be considered. However, barriers should separate these areas from the playground areas.

Cost Estimate

The cost of developing a playground depends on many factors. Site development costs are typically a substantial portion of the budget. Therefore, it is beneficial to begin with a fairly flat site on which a 1 to 2 percent slope can be obtained with minimal earthwork. While sites with mature trees and shrubs offer the opportunity to incorporate these into the playground design, avoid sites with extremely dense vegetation to reduce site-clearing costs.

Total project cost or budget = Cost of playground equipment (x) + Cost of installation (.30x) + Cost of surfacing (.12x) + Cost of design fees, grading, landscaping, and other expenses (.10x)


Total project cost or budget =1.52x

The number and types of play structures and zones included on the playground and the type of safety surfacing installed also affect the project’s budget. The following formula, proposed by Jay Beckwith, a leader in modern playground design, can be used in determining a programmatic budget for playground design and construction.

Community Build

A large portion of a playground’s budget is spent on the installation of the playground equipment, including the large play structure in the gross motor play area. To help with this cost, many playground manufacturers and designers work with organizations and communities to conduct community build projects in which volunteers install the equipment. This process can reduce the cost of a project up to 30 percent. The point at which community volunteers or playground designers become involved in the process of developing a playground can vary. Most playground manufacturers, when given a site, can design and construct a playground with little to no input from a community organization or user group. However, this typically leads to playgrounds that consist of only manufactured play equipment. Speed of delivery is exchanged for a sense of ownership and a variety of play opportunities on the playground.

Another option is for a community group or organization to plan a playground that designates an area for the gross motor play equipment. Manufacturers can then be sent a drawing indicating the size of the area from which they can propose possible play structure designs, which will become part of the overall playground development. These structures can be installed in one of three ways: solely by the playground manufacturer, by volunteer labour with a supervisor provided by the manufacturer or by volunteer labour only. An increasingly popular source of playground design and construction services is the design firm that specializes in community-built playgrounds. These firms become part of the process from the inception of the project; they lead a community group or organization through activities that result in a unique playground designed specifically for a particular locale. Often these playgrounds feature custom-designed gross motor play activities and incorporate little to no manufactured play equipment. The design firm then assists the community group in organizing the construction of the facility through volunteer labour. While this can be a time-intensive experience for an organization to undertake, the result is a playground unique to the community and one in which the community takes greater responsibility for its upkeep and maintenance because of the high level of civic pride in what was accomplished.