One of the challenges when consulting a school on their new playground is that we ask the parents and children what they would like to include. The problem is that this cohort has little understanding of the very different roles playgrounds have in different venues. The tendency is to select events that are more suitable for parks than schools, like high slides.
Everyone agrees that they would like the playstructure to have lots of challenges. However, if by challenge, we mean engagement, then we must recognize that other kids are the most interesting and challenging things on the playground. This axiom means that a school playground must be designed differently than a park playground.
There are very rare times in a park, mainly for birthday parties, when a cohort of kids is on the playground at the same time. Most often, the children playing at a park are strangers to each other, and they come to the park only occasionally. However, on a school playground, the kids all know each other and play together constantly.
Parks playgrounds that are high, elaborate, and expensive are successful because the community likes their monumental stature. If they are inclusive, so much the better.
Over the past few years, there has been a race to see which company could build the highest structures. The problem is that ASTM mandates require fully enclosed decks and events above 78” high. The result is a tremendous investment in fencing and stairs which now account for well over 90% of the cost of the structure.
The apparent goal of these vertical structures is to enhance the challenge. But note, if other kids are the most challenging element, these designs constantly remove children from the play with other children as they spend the bulk of their time exiting and reentering the structure. While at the same time, these designs provide negligible developmental benefits.
We must recognize that playground equipment that complies with ASTM standards is generally interesting only to students up to the 3rd grade. In the higher grades, sports and socializing take up most recess time. In the recreation venue, kids also leave the play structure for sports, skateparks, and climbing gyms.
Playgrounds that can be used as a game space where groups of kids challenge each other are better for schools than park designs suited for occasional visitors. A survey of playground usage can easily verify this fact.
A well-designed playstructure will be crawling with kids during recess during the school year. At other times, it will see very few patrons. In contrast, the park playstrure will have a few visitors when school is not in session and especially in the summer.
Here are a few guidelines for a good school playstructure.
- Connect the events on structure as much as possible.
- Wherever an event is primarily used for egress, it should be paired with an access event.
- Emphasize a variety of upper body events, as you can’t have too many.
- Include balance activities as links.
- Do include talk tubes.
- Use nets as conversation nodes rather than challenges. These must be flexible rather than the stiff and rigid designs that have become so popular in parks.
- Don’t include “activity” panels except for kindergarten structures.