According to early childhood experts, children need free, spontaneous play, and the best place for this is a playground. ''Children’s free play typically is pleasurable, self-motivated, imaginative, non-goal-directed, spontaneous, active, and free of rules imposed by adults,'' writes Vicki L. Stoecklin, M.Ed., in Creating Playgrounds Kids Love. ''Quality play involves the whole child: gross motor, fine motor, senses, emotion, intellect, individual growth, and social interaction.''
However, Stoecklin continues, ''Outdoor areas designed by adults often fail to delight their intended audience. Children want areas filled with nature — from plants, trees, flowers, and water to animals and insects. They want different things to do and developmentally appropriate learning environments that hold their attention for hours.''
Playgrounds, therefore, must be designed with two aims in mind: to excite the child and to nurture them. If designed correctly, playgrounds will not only foster children’s imaginative spirit, but they will also provide a safe and enjoyable place for kids to develop and grow.
There are several factors to consider when designing playgrounds for kids.
Working With the Landscape
As Stoecklin writes, ''When children are outdoors, they're crawling under bushes, digging in dirt, damming streams, and climbing anywhere their legs and sense of adventure will take them.'' Children like nature. So work with it. Instead of ''paving paradise,'' set your playground among the grassy knolls and rolling hills — children can run up them or roll down them. Allow foliage and other natural objects to be speckled around the playground: after all, trees provide shade, bushes become forts, and logs become bridges.
According to Stoecklin, ''Numerous studies of outdoor experiences have shown that natural outdoor environments have an impact on humans. They reduce stress and create a feeling of well-being. And small children consistently prefer the natural landscape over built environments.''
Play Time — Naturally
Along with typical playground equipment, including seesaws, monkey bars, jungle gyms, slides, swings, and merry-go-rounds, natural objects like sand, water, and rocks are great tools to stimulate children’s imaginations and help kids develop fine motor skills.
Sandboxes allow kids to use their hands to create sandcastles and dig for pretend gold. Streams and watering holes let kids collect rocks and skip them across the surface, use shovels to scoop water into buckets, and splash and clean their dirty hands.
Make Things Safe
It’s inevitable: children fall. So to cushion their knees and heads, surround the play equipment with something soft, such as wood chips, rubber mats, bark mulch, or sand. Avoid harder surfaces including concrete, grass, and dirt.
Here are some more safety tips from the National Safety Council (NSC):
- Guardrails should be placed on all platforms to prevent children from falling.
- Make sure there aren’t things that can trip children, like tree roots or loose concrete
- There should be no sharp edges around the equipment.
- Design playgrounds with age in mind: the National Program for Playground Safety says playgrounds should be split from ages 2 to 5 and 5 to 12.
- Openings in play equipment should be big enough so children can’t squeeze through and get trapped.