Architectural Considerations for Designing Play Spaces

Architectural Considerations for Designing Play Spaces

Designing a play space is an opportunity to reconnect with your inner child. It provides today’s kids with an immersive space that ignites their imagination and unites them with peers of all ages and abilities. A well-designed playground is a game changer, and future trends in play area architecture are a powerful tool to inform current play space design.

Today’s play spaces are inclusive, exciting, flexible and multidimensional, incorporating space to create a haven for kids of all ages. Playspace design involves many considerations, but the bottom line is creating a fun, educational and engaging experience. Guided by sound architectural principles, designers can create unique spaces that change lives and unite communities.

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Why Is Playground Design Important?

Play is vital for healthy physical, social and psychological development. Playgrounds are essential to encourage physical activity and social interaction, but playground design can change how kids interact with their surroundings.

Innovative playgrounds — playgrounds with a variety of surface types, naturalized and planted areas, open-ended structures, loose and movable equipment and imaginative structures — attract 2.5 times more users and generate almost three times the amount of physical activity. They also attract 43% more visitors compared to one-dimensional playgrounds.

Design affects how kids perceive and use their play space. A well-designed playground can change how kids interact with each other, promoting inclusivity and fostering empathy in children of all ages, backgrounds and abilities.

Architectural Considerations for Designing Play Spaces

Innovating playground design involves several considerations. It requires clear goals and careful planning to help kids interact with the materials in the healthiest and most positive way. The principal considerations for designing successful play spaces include:

1. Architectural Safety Standards and Regulations

While designers, parents and teachers try to keep kids safe on the playground, more than 200,000 kids under 14 visit the emergency room yearly due to playground-related injuries. Safety is part of every aspect of playground design, and minimizing the risk of injury is essential to help kids enjoy the activities unhindered.

How you design the space depends on local standards, laws and requirements. You can structure your design around clear and accurate information on what is allowed, keeping it safe and compliant. In addition to the regulation, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission offers a voluntary standard on playground safety, which covers relevant safety measures.

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International has developed a set of voluntary technical manufacturing standards for public-use playground surfaces, fencing and equipment. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability, which includes stipulations about playground design like:

    • Any path to the edge of the play area should be accessible from either the building or the parking lot.
  • Pathways from the edge of any play area to the play equipment should be accessible.
  • Surfacing should follow ASTM 1951 — determination of Accessibility of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment.
  • Any play equipment should be accessible by a transfer station or ramp, depending on the design.

Depending on your proposed location, you may also have to factor in local and state regulations. Combining these elements can provide a framework for safe and creative design.

2. Layout and Space Planning

The spatial layout of a playground affects play and physical activity levels, and using the available space to encourage play is essential. Regardless of the size of the area, the layout should have a natural flow that encourages kids to explore and get creative. The following factors can help you make the most of your space:

  • Goals: Why are you designing a playground? Consider what you want to accomplish with the finished product — a safe community space, outdoor fitness ground or way to encourage early childhood development. Use your goal to inform your layout and use of space.
  • Age groups and capacity: How you use the available space depends on the age groups you cater to and how many kids your playground can hold at a given time. Kids should be able to enjoy the activities without bumping into or disrupting one another.
  • Site location: Indoor and outdoor sites have their considerations. Outdoor site architects must factor in shade, drainage and existing foliage. Using your square footage to the maximum is vital for an indoor area to keep kids engaged as they would be outdoors.
  • Topography: If your site is outdoors, you can use the natural topography to add elevation changes and create areas that encourage exploration. Indoor locations also benefit from various levels and hidden surprises.
  • Styles of play: Consider how many different ways kids could use the space you give them and provide areas within your space that encourage social interaction, active play and quiet contemplation. Your layout should differentiate these spaces but still create a flow from one to the next.
  • Flow of space: Kids will move around a playground as you design it, trying different pieces of equipment and moving between sections. Consider connecting the various play areas to encourage excitement and exploration. Allowing an open and spontaneous flow of movement makes it easier for kids to use every inch of the space.

3. Material Selection for Play Areas

Every item and surface on your playground must complement the next and create an exciting blend of color and texture for kids. Your choice of materials depends on your location. For example, you wouldn’t put uncovered metal surfaces in direct sunlight. Some materials to consider include:

  • Surfacing: The right surfacing choices can help with playground safety and should be durable and absorb the shock of kids jumping off the equipment. Depending on your needs, aesthetics and budget, you have several options, including wood chips, shredded rubber, modular tiles, engineered wood fiber and synthetic turf.
  • Playground equipment surfaces: The surfaces kids interact with must be durable, safe and encourage play. Playground elements must keep them entertained and enjoying new experiences. You can choose from surfaces like metal, plastic, wood and rubber, each of which has pros and cons.
  • Building materials: When building structures, consider the elements you want to add and which building materials can help you achieve your ideal finished product. Common building materials include pressure-treated wood, aluminum, plastic and galvanized steel. Your choice of materials should blend into an outdoor environment and withstand the elements. Indoor materials should be safe, durable and aesthetically appealing.
  • Sustainability: Using sustainable materials is a preferred option for many families likely to visit your playground. Parents are increasingly aware of the importance of sustainable materials in design. Consider whether you can incorporate recycled materials, use responsibly sourced materials and invest in quality from the outset to promote longevity. The material selection phase is the ideal opportunity to consider your environmental impact.

Choosing the right individual materials is one element of your overall design. The other involves ensuring the materials complement each other to create a finished playground. Consider how your material choices engage kids and expose them to different games and textures.

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4. Design

Once you’ve set the safety parameters, decided how to use the available space and chosen the materials, it’s time to get to the fun part — designing your play area. The first step is to pull ideas from every available resource, like past playground pioneers, to inform your goals and provide inspiration. Playgrounds inspire fantasy games, and your design should facilitate them, keeping kids engaged from one element to the next.

Some elements to consider in the design phase include:

  • Theme: A theme can elevate your play area and help you create cohesive design elements that encourage the imagination.
  • Memorable structures: A well-designed playground can create memories that last a lifetime, and exciting figures with recognizable features can spark creativity.
  • Education: Playgrounds and other play spaces offer exciting opportunities to educate kids, from learning about the indigenous fauna and flora to refining fine motor skills with water play.
  • Activity: Playgrounds should inspire movement. Think about your design from the kids’ point of view and design for them. What can you incorporate into your design that will inspire kids to get up and explore the different elements?
  • Participation: Effective playground design should incorporate loose elements that kids can move around to create their own environment. Kids have active imaginations, and dictating every aspect of their experience can be stifling, so ensure your design includes opportunities for creative freedom.
  • Variety: Every playground design should have elements that appeal to various age groups, including sensory play objects, safe play structures and games.
  • Secrets and surprises: Incorporating hidden passageways, secret dens and other hidden wonders can pique curiosity and encourage exploration, giving kids a different experience each time they enter your playground.
  • Sections: Design sections should suit a specific type of play and energy level so kids can play according to their mood.
  • Intersection: Your design should encourage social interaction between kids of all ages and abilities. You can facilitate this interaction by including intersections — areas where play flows from different sources, including diverse groups of kids.
  • Nature: Play areas allow kids to connect with nature — clever design can provide this connection, regardless of the environment.
  • Aesthetics: A playground can only accomplish your goals if it excites kids and makes them want to explore. Consider how your design makes kids feel and look for opportunities to make them excited to get into the play area.

Accessible and Inclusive Design for Play Areas

Successful play area design should offer the same quality and extent of play to kids with disabilities while accepting that some equipment is not accessible to everyone. Consider the following elements to keep your playground design fun, comfortable and accessible for kids:

  • Accessibility: Kids should have access to the play area and individual elements. Plan access to transportation and restrooms and ensure gates are wide enough to facilitate assisted access. Avoid physical obstacles like curbs and use accessible safety surfacing in the relevant areas.
  • Comfort: Every kid should feel comfortable on the playground, regardless of sensory or physical challenges. Caregivers should also have comfortable seating and access to play elements to provide physical and emotional support. It’s also essential for caregivers to have a clear line of sight from seating areas to different play elements.
  • Usability: Kids should be able to move around the play area and reach the play equipment. Incorporate equipment designs that provide play and spaciousness for body sizes, abilities positions and assistive devices.
  • Sensory play: Sensory play opportunities are a fantastic method of incorporating inclusive design. Consider soothing textures, body pressure and other sensory experiences, like scents, sounds and visual stimuli.
  • Visual cues: Transitions in playground surface color and texture can help users with visual impairments and other sensory disabilities navigate the play areas.
  • Quiet areas: Quiet breaks and solitary play areas are essential to provide a respite from overstimulation, making them critical for inclusive playground design.
  • Error tolerance: Your design should minimize the risk of adverse consequences due to accidental and unintended actions.
  • Challenges: Inclusive play areas feature multiple challenge levels for kids with unique abilities and preferences.
  • Social engagement: Intersecting spaces provide opportunities for social engagement and a chance for kids in different stages of development to build their social skills in a safe and inclusive space.
  • Ground-level activities: Using the available space and adding levels is integral to playground design. Ground activities should remain a priority, as while some kids may not be able to use all the available equipment, they have a choice of inclusive options.

Playground goals have transformed over the years and will continue to change in line with the communities they serve. As play areas evolve for the future, several trends are coming to the fore, including:

Destination Playgrounds

Playground design is becoming more creative. One-of-a-kind techniques combined with a rich social atmosphere and theme create the ultimate destination playground. Characterized by having activities for all ages and abilities, these design masterpieces encourage imagination and draw tourists and locals to the experience.

Active Recreation

In the digital age, designers emphasize getting kids and adults outdoors to engage in healthy, active activities. Adding fitness equipment, holding space for exercise stations and incorporating functional elements for all ages and abilities is a trend to look out for in new and existing play areas.

Interactive Features in Play Spaces

Combining technology and traditional play areas is the next logical step in elevating inclusivity, making play more sensory, incorporating music and visual aids and integrating technology and physical activity to create a vast outdoor computer game that tests speed, reflexes and other skills. The possibilities for creativity are endless.


Climate resilience is a significant consideration in designing outdoor playgrounds. Many architects are designing elements that can withstand extreme weather conditions, ensuring kids have access to safe play.

Playgrounds for All Ages

While play areas are traditionally for younger kids, the benefits of outdoor play remain the same for other age groups. Playground design is starting to incorporate equipment for teens and adults, shifting the focus to a complete family experience and ensuring people use outdoor facilities regardless of age or fitness level.

Create Your Next Play Experience With Soft Play®

Creating a unique and exciting play space starts with the design — architects can make the impossible possible, provided they have the right play equipment. Soft Play, the global leader in playground equipment, is committed to pushing the boundaries of innovation and providing safe forms of play that are as good for business as they are for kids. We can customize our play to your budget and available space, helping you bring your design to life.

We understand the importance of creating unique play space designs. We can create a custom play system that fits seamlessly into your design to create magical experiences for kids of all ages. If you already have a plan, request a quote and let’s get started. Or you can contact us for a free design consultation and let us help you bring your design to life today!

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