Guiding the Way to Playground Design

February 1, 2016, Department, by Gary Sorge, FASLA, and Donna Walcavage, FASLA

An example of a woodland playground from the New York State Play Areas Guidebook.When it comes to designing play environments, maintaining consistent quality among facilities is certainly important but so are creativity, context sensitivity and inspiring play. So, how do you find that balance between prescriptive standards and expressive character? That was the challenge facing the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which determined that a menu of options, along with guidance on how and when to use those options, could help its regional staff develop unique, appropriate and fun new playgrounds that still meet the state’s high standards of quality and recreational value.

The Power of Choice

When Rose Harvey assumed the role of commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in 2011, she recognized that the state’s playgrounds needed to break free from the somewhat formulaic, cookie-cutter approach of years past. What’s more, some equipment was now outdated and no longer the best fit for play value or spatial quality. The department also wanted to expand the idea of playgrounds as active space to go beyond children, incorporating exercise opportunities for active adults and seniors. 

That’s when the menu idea was born. With the help of landscape architecture consultants, the department expanded the menu idea into a comprehensive guidebook — called the New York State Play Areas Guidebook — that provides not only prototypes for various playground environments, but also guidelines to help designers adapt and implement them. The guidebook is organized into two main components: park environment types and implementation.

Park Environment Types

Because topography and environment varies dramatically across the state of New York, the department identified three main categories that apply to most of the state’s parks: 


  • Woodland — near or within a forest or naturalized setting; 
  • Waterside — near a stream, river or body of water; and
  • Urban — located in a city or town center. 


The guidebook steps through each of these environments, presenting a vision for each context, including potential features, style of play and play amenities, and considerations for transitioning between the play area and its surroundings. Each section contains numerous project examples and potential equipment and components.

Again, these suggestions and descriptions are not meant to prescribe a particular design or piece of equipment but rather to guide designers in creating an aesthetic that complements the surroundings and appeals to current and prospective use groups. For example, the woodland playgrounds section describes how, in years past, brightly-colored, plastic and metal equipment may have been purchased for a playground in a forested setting simply because that was the easiest or most common approach to playground design. That equipment can create a jarring disconnect with the natural surroundings rather than the physical and mental connection to nature that the playground could provide if designed as an extension of the neighboring forest. The guidebook provides examples of sites and playground components that “enhance the forested context,” including natural materials such as timber, rope and wood-fiber surfacing.

The visual transition of these playgrounds into their settings is a major feature of the guidebook. Each of the three context areas provides specific considerations and suggestions for transition areas. But, the book also addresses the topic globally in its own section, reinforcing the importance of a consistent aesthetic throughout a given park and the concept of borderless play. The transitional spaces section presents considerations for ground materials, landscape plantings, seating, fences (or lack thereof), access points and other site features and amenities.

Going Beyond the Norm

In addition to the three playground categories, play areas that could be incorporated within various settings are also defined:

Landform playgrounds — These play areas use sculpted topography as a main play feature, whether it already exists on-site (e.g., a large hill) or can be designed into it (e.g., a berm or a field of small hills). The guidebook describes — and shows in example images — not only how these landforms can be incorporated into a playground, but also what kinds of play equipment can be integrated into them.

Outdoor expressions — These playgrounds or portions of them are focused on exploring visual, tactile and social play that goes beyond the climbing, swinging and sliding of typical playgrounds. Installations and equipment should engage the five senses, including anything from musical “instruments” like slap pipes and dance chimes, to moveable sculptures, and sand and puzzle-building stations. Another benefit of incorporating these elements into a playground is they do not always require safety surfacing, which helps keep costs down.

Ground plane — The surfacing of a playground is a crucial part of its aesthetic and safety. In fact, for most play areas, safety surfacing is required to meet the impact attenuation requirements of equipment fall heights and the entire fall zone. Various types of surfacing, including artificial turf, poured-in-place rubber, rubber mulch, wood fiber and sand, and the pros, cons and applicability of each to different types of playgrounds are discussed in the guidebook.

Fitness — One of the department’s goals is to provide opportunities for everyone — no matter what age or physical ability — to be active in state parks. Centered on the idea of “active design,” the guidebook includes design ideas and equipment suggestions that can help get the entire family active, whether it’s play areas for children, fitness equipment for teens and adults or walking trails for anyone. The goal is not to become a Venice Beach-like bodybuilding venue, but rather to incorporate simple equipment that is easy to use and easy to maintain outdoors. While things like pull-up bars and balance beams have been included in park areas for years, a growing trend is to include actual fitness equipment — leg press, chest press, elliptical machines — within park settings to help raise the level of activity. The guidebook highlights examples of these, as well as product lines designed specifically for seniors or people in wheelchairs. 

Playgrounds in Action

Since the guidebook was completed, New York State Parks has designed three new playgrounds within Letchworth State Park south of Rochester (which falls into the “woodland” category). The team was able to draw inspiration from the book as well as guidance from its implementation section, which helped identify the best sites for the new playgrounds and considerations for the level of play at each. 

The department now aims to implement a statewide, multiyear play area rehabilitation plan, using the guidebook as motivation for regional facilities managers. 

“With the methodology and standard of quality the book has helped us establish, we’ve been able to jump-start the process and move a playground concept more quickly into implementation,” says David Herring, capital facilities regional manager for the Genesee Region of New York State Parks. “It’s a tremendous resource and tool for our department that will help ensure visitors to our beautiful state parks can experience the physical, mental and social benefits of physical play.

Gary Sorge, FASLA, is a Vice President at Stantec and leader of the firm’s landscape architecture practice.Donna Walcavage, FASLA, is a Principal and Landscape Architect, also at Stantec.