10 Factors to Consider When Designing Outdoor Play Areas
By Carolyn Tomlin

A young mother recently told me of an embarrassing situation she experienced back in kindergarten. “While my class was playing outside on the playground, I had to use the bathroom. My teacher said to ‘run real fast’ back to the room – then come back immediately. I ran as fast as I could, but it was too late.”


I retell this story here to illustrate how important playground design is. A bathroom conveniently located near the playground would have saved this child from embarrassment, and many other young children, the humiliation of facing peers with soiled clothing. If you’re designing a new playground or making changes to an existing one, consider all of the factors that make a difference to your children and their parents.


1.  Safety. In a recent poll of parents who have children attending child care programs, safety is the number one concern. Parents want their children to attend programs where teachers and staff carefully supervise outdoor play and check equipment for safety hazards. Ask yourself, “What is the condition of the play equipment?” and “What happens if a child gets hurt?” Put policies and procedures into place for regular playground inspection (see the article, “How Safe Is Your Playground?” on pages 18-19) and emergency first aid.


2. Location. When designing your play area, consider all factors:

How far is the playground from your indoor classroom? Is it near an outside entrance? Can children come directly from their room to the play area, or do they have to cross a side street where there may be car traffic?

3. Fencing. Does a secure fence surround your play area? In unfenced areas, the playground may invite stray animals and people from the community who may pose a danger to the children. By constructing a fence, you help to restrict access from unwanted visitors and promote the children’s privacy.

4. Equipment. Does the playground contain age-appropriate equipment? If several age groups use the area, equipment should meet those needs in a safe way. For further information about matching children to appropriate play equipment, please see our article on pages 30-39.

5. Open-Ended Equipment. Does your playground offer opportunities for creative play? For example, an open barrel (solder both ends so the edges are rounded) can become a horse to ride, a ship to navigate, or a rocket to the moon. Multi-purpose objects are only limited by a child’s imagination.

6. Surfacing. To ensure safety of the children, all areas of your playground should be properly surfaced. A variety of materials, including shredded rubber or bark and pea-gravel, absorb shocks from falls. And be sure to check the depth of your safety surfacing regularly. Replace surfacing materials as needed.

7. Sand Box. Children learn pouring, measuring, and building castles with this natural resource. Provide a cover when not in use to keep out rain, leaves, and neighborhood cats.


8. Natural elements. Provide children with nature experiences by planting trees, grass, and bulbs or flowers. Teach children that leaves fall in autumn and plants sprout again in the spring. Plan lessons around digging and planting a small flowerbed or vegetable garden. Water plants or seeds and watch them grow.


9. Shade. When planning your play space, be sure that there are places for sun and shade. In some cases, you may need to construct canopies and awnings, especially if there are no trees to provide natural shading. If children will be playing in the sun, be sure to apply sunscreen.


10. Facilities. Having a bathroom and water fountain adjacent to the outdoor play area assists teachers in providing appropriate playground supervision and provides easy access to facilities for children.




Carolyn R. Tomlin, M.Ed., Jackson, TN, has been the director of a preschool program, kindergarten teacher, and taught Early Childhood Education at Union University. She is the author of Teachers as Published Writers, available at www.authorhouse.com, toll-free 1-800-839-8640.