Skip to Main Content

The Study of Play (April 2019): Playground Design

By Charles Kroncke and Ronald F. White

Playground Design

The original impetus for designing and building playgrounds was to provide a fun place for children to play. Over time legal standards of safety and parental consent gradually evolved. Children climb, build, slide, and swing on playground apparatus while interacting with other children, but playground safety and fun often conflict. A low jungle gym may be safe, but not fun. A high swing may be fun but not safe.  Thus, constructing safe fun playgrounds is a challenge, and safety often wins over fun because of the possibility of injury and regret, or lawsuits. Heather Olsen, Susan Hudson, and Donna Thompson developed SAFE and Fun Playgrounds, a manual to help educators and playground designers think about outdoor playgrounds that are safe and offer challenges to children of different ages and abilities. The first chapter’s brief history of playgrounds in the United States provides context and shows the need for safety on city and school playgrounds. The remaining chapters are devoted to the SAFE program and an explanation of its four elements: Supervision, Age-appropriate design, Fall surface, and Equipment. One of the roles of the supervisor is to direct the child to age-appropriate equipment. Older children may climb on the top of equipment designed for small children, and the supervisor’s role is to watch for such potentially dangerous situations.  The fall surface and equipment chapters provide instructions on how to create a safe and fun environment.  Eight useful appendixes serve as reference tools for playgrounds that designers and educators may use to make SAFE playgrounds. For example: one appendix is devoted to an American Disabilities Act checklist, another to regulations in several different states. In his photo book Seasons of Play: Natural Environments of Wonder, Rusty Keeler offers photographs of the natural environment with an eye toward urging children to turn to trees and nature as a playground in lieu of man-made play areas. In her The Science of Play: How to Build Playgrounds That Enhance Children’s Development, Susan Solomon imagines a playground in which children can help with design to make the play area more fun and unique to its community. Lucia Raatma’s Staying Safe on the Playground addresses playground construction and steps parents can take to avoid accidents. Michelle Galindo takes an international approach to creating unique playgrounds in Playground Design. In American Playgrounds: Revitalizing Community Space, Susan Solomon gives a compelling argument for community-specific solutions for redesigned playground spaces. Other good playground design books include Designing Outdoor Environments for Children: Landscaping Schoolyards, Gardens and Playgrounds, by Lolly Tai et al., and Kenneth Kutska and Kevin Hoffman’s Playground Safety Is No Accident: Developing a Public Playground Safety and Maintenance Program.

Outdoor playgrounds too evidence the power of technology. Carroll Pursell’s From Playground to PlayStation examines the relationships between play and American culture, with special attention to the role of technology. Pursell distinguishes between public playgrounds where children produce play, and private playgrounds where children consume play (e.g., Disney World). This is an important distinction because these two types of playgrounds suggest different outcomes when it comes to exploration and creativity. Pursell offers examples of how theme parks have shifted from participatory play to the passive consumption of pleasure for both children and adults.

Works Cited