The first step in the process is all about the concept and planning for your park or playground.
Create a vision for the playground.
When creating your vision, start with the end in mind. These questions will help you get started.
- Where will the playground be located?
- Will this be a community play area or a school play area?
- Will it be open only during school hours or will it be available to the community after hours?
- What type of playground do you envision – a destination, adventure, inclusive?
- Are there specific play experiences to include?
- Contemporary or traditional playground?
- Should it blend with the environment or will it be theme-based?
Age and Ability Appropriate
- How many children will be using the equipment at one time?
- What ages need to be accommodated?
- Does there need to be separate areas for 2- to 5-year-olds and 5- to 12-year-olds?
- What about children over 12 and adults?
- Are there children with specific disabilities you want to accommodate?
- Do you need to design for a phased approach to accommodate a smaller budget?
- What additional amenities – shade, benches, restrooms, fencing, etc. – should be included?
Develop a Budget
Think about costs and budget early in the process to ensure you’re planning for all elements. You want to find the right balance between your goals and your budget to avoid any shortfalls down the line.
- What will your budget cover – playground equipment, site furnishings, surfacing, shipping, site preparation, safety surfacing, containment border materials, installation, future maintenance?
- How will funds be secured – through grants, purchasing contracts, fundraising efforts?
- Who are potential funding partners?
Consider designing based on a “Pay for Play” concept. This means play elements come first instead of relying on what is left over in the budget.
ADA Accessibility Legal Requirements
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on disability, which is defined by the ADA as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.”
The ADA establishes standards that requires public facilities – which includes newly constructed and updated playgrounds – be readily accessible to, and usable by, individuals with disabilities.
What does this mean?
- You must provide an accessible path to the playground, such as ramps and/or barrier-free travel routes. This should include an accessible protective surfacing to each structure that is intended to be used by children with disabilities.
- The playground must meet the ADA compliant ratios of accessible ground level and elevated play events.
To help you understand the standards the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) created a Checklist for Access that summarizes 12 key steps for compliance.
You should be aware that designing solely for ADA standards means you are really designing to the minimum requirements. While play structures and equipment must be accessible to children with disabilities, that doesn’t mean the whole structure needs to be accessible.
When planning your playground, think beyond designing for wheelchair access only. Ramps, shorter step heights, roomier decks and hand rails can make it a better play experience but planning for a range of disabilities will ensure your playground is enjoyed by as many children as possible.
Encourage Community Involvement – Early!
Get the community involved. Find out what they want to see. Determine who to involve in planning, funding and installation.
- Who are your stakeholders – kids, parents, park or school personnel, childcare providers?
- Who are potential supporters – PTOs, physical education staff, neighborhood associations, service clubs, local government agencies, religious groups, local news media?
Involve both children and adults, people of all ages, to provide design input regarding the play structures, amenities, colors, and more.
Invite participation to scheduled meetings. Contact community organizations or ask for help from local businesses. Ask for input through social media or put suggestion boxes at the community center, city offices and school office.
Getting involvement early on means you’ll have community support throughout the life of the project. Involving a greater number of people will help ensure you’re considering all viewpoints. Community involvement is crucial!
Determine How the Surrounding Environment Impacts the Playground
Where will your park or playground be located? It’s important to assess how the surrounding environment will affect your project.
- Is the location rural, urban or in the city? Is it a school or neighborhood playground?
- Will this be a brand new playground or replace an existing one?
- Is it a public or private playground?
- What surrounds the area? Are there unique historical characteristics, natural or man-made elements, landscaping, fences or paths to incorporate?
- What are climate impacts to the area, such as wind, temperature, sun and precipitation?
- Are there areas that may hold water?
- Where are utilities located (water, sewer, electric, gas, cable, and telephone lines)?
Best Practices for Playground Layout
The ASTM and CPSC have guidelines that are considered best practices for playground layout to ensure the safest play environment possible. These guidelines cover everything from the types of equipment to safety surfacing, age appropriateness and more.
When laying out a playground, keep these factors in mind.
- Accessibility. Equipment selection and location plus the type of protective surfacing are key components to ensuring the opportunity for children with disabilities to play.
- Age separation. The layout of pathways and landscaping should show distinct areas for different age groups by acting as a buffer zone.
- Conflicting activities. Organize play areas into different sections, such as for active, physical activities vs. more passive or quiet. Disperse popular, heavy-use play equipment to avoid crowding. Know the different use zones for play equipment.
- Sight lines. Minimize visual barriers, keep sight lines open so that parents and care givers can easily keep track of children.
- Signage and/or labeling. Give guidance to parents and care givers as to the age appropriateness of the equipment.
Tim McNamara is a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI) and is a Sales Consultant for ABCreative, a company focused on creating the perfect park and playground for your school and community.