Building Dynamic Playgrounds

March 1, 2016, Department, by Michelle A. Kelly, RLA, CPSI

Dynamic play spaces, like Chicago’s Hiawatha Park, seen here, help to maximize user experience for children of all ages and abilities.Playgrounds by their very nature are fun and should inspire kids to play. The quality of that play is inherently linked to the design of the playground — its layout, play equipment, amenities and aesthetics. Using research-based evidence, the concept of dynamic play guides playground design with nine easy-to-understand criteria in an effort to get children playing longer, socializing more and getting more exercise. 

Research on play and childhood development comes from universities, nonprofits, governments and corporations. Articles from as early as 1986, such as, “Preschoolers’ Play Behavior in Outdoor Environments: Effects of Traditional and Contemporary Playgrounds” in the American Educational Research Journal, to more recent works from 2013 in the Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning’s “A Comparative Study of Active Play on Differently Designed Playgrounds,” highlight the way design affects play. This research, along with more than 20 years of designing playgrounds, helped to form the nine key criteria and coined the term “dynamic play” for this method of design. 

The idea is to incorporate as many of the nine criteria in a playground as possible. Not all will work for all sites or users, so customization is key to fitting to a specific playground. 

1) Space

Create spaces beyond just safety use zones so that kids can run, jump and play. This allows for unstructured play areas and spaces to socialize. Extra space can be part of the safety-play surface area or adjacent spaces with lawn berms, shaded shelters, a garden space or short ledge with a view to the play area. 

2) Diversity

A diversity of play types is key to encourage the physical, cognitive, social and sensory exploration within a playground. Multiple levels of activities with a diversity of play events keep kids interested and increases physical activity. The physical play pieces with swings, slides and climbers can be complemented with social play houses, shelters, talk tubes and cognitive play themes, panels and sand play. Diversity of play pieces can also help meet the needs of many users with varying physical and cognitive abilities.

3) Circuits

Multiple loops and access points provide paths of movement to explore and learn while encouraging exercise through play. The most basic loop is an entry stair to a slide and the path back to the stair. When that loop is extended through play pieces like pod climbers, monkey bars, bridges, ramps, exterior paved walks, a landscape bed or a climbing rock ledge before getting back to the slide, entry users have more opportunities to be active. 

4) Seating

Comfortable seating throughout the playground for adults to monitor activity, as well as quiet places for kids to step away from the excitement, is important to meet all users’ needs. When caregivers are comfortable in a play space, they are more likely to stay longer. This results in kids getting more play time.

5) Safety

Adhering to CPSC and ASTM standards for public playground safety is a key element to creating long-term site safety. Additionally, protection from the sun and wind increases comfort while separation from busy streets will promote a feeling of safety and encourage families to return. Safety and the perception of safety is an underlying piece to all well-designed playgrounds. 

6) Nature

Access to the natural environment improves children’s cognitive and social development and creates more complex play that lasts for longer periods of time. Nature can be added to any type of playground with landscape beds, logs, rocks or trees. Native and non-native plants can both be used to create more complex and interesting play spaces that can complement a more standard play structure or be the defining theme of the entire playground. 

7) Moving Parts

Sand, water, sticks — moveable parts create a more interesting play experience for kids as the environment shifts under their direction. Adding moving parts can improve fine motor skill development, expand imaginative play and encourage sensory play. Moving parts can include a water spray feature, sand play area or movable foam blocks, spheres and tubes. Kids can push the boundaries of play design and imagination by creating their own play with moving parts. 

8) Social Inclusion

Inclusive spaces encourage people with different abilities and ages to share the space socially and psychologically — not just physically. The goal is to go beyond meeting the federal ADA standards. This means making the playground welcoming with circulation loops in which all users can participate, seating spaces for all and panel play for everyone.

9) Imagination

Promoting imaginative play engages children’s cognitive skills and makes play more fun for all ages. Themes and areas that promote imagination engage a child’s analytical skills, encourage exploration and create a sense of place. Not every playground needs a theme, but ensuring that play pieces encourage imagination will help create spaces that help everyone find the sense of what wonder play is all about.

Implementing the dynamic play criteria is where the fun begins. A great example is Hiawatha Park, located on Chicago’s northwest side. The recently updated park is a center of recreation and fun for the neighborhood, and incorporates the nine key elements of dynamic play. Public meetings allowed users’ needs to be integrated while the Chicago Park District playground design guidelines were followed to help reduce maintenance costs and provide safe play. The circuits are especially successful in this playground with both ramps and rubber surfacing berms tied into the play structure. The real success is seeing kids play while caregivers relax nearby in the shade. 

As research continues to be compiled, the criteria will continue to be updated so that playground designs continue to improve. The success of each playground design will be found in the real world where kids are playing, memories are being made and everyone is asking to visit that great playground again.

Michelle A. Kelly, RLA, CPSI, is a Principal Landscape Architect at Upland Design Ltd.