What Makes a Great Playground?


Psychologist Jean Piaget said that play is the work of childhood. Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers fame agreed, saying that “play is serious learning.” For adults who grew up in the mid-20th century, it was not uncommon to be sent outside “to play” and not be expected home until dinner. Exploration with other kids in an unstructured environment was the norm. Inventing games, whether on city streets, parks, suburban lots or rural land, was more the responsibility of children than their adult caretakers.

Playgrounds present a more structured play environment. In the past, they offered basic opportunities for swinging, sliding, and climbing – what’s considered gross motor play. These activities support physical development. Some playgrounds offered sand boxes for younger children. These were places parents could bring children, knowing they were relatively safe and enclosed. Yet this type of playground was only a part of how children played and experienced the outdoors.

Fast forward to 2019. Most children’s time is highly structured with organized activities. The digital realm outcompetes the analog world. According to the National Recreation and Parks Association, “children today spend less time outdoors than any other generation, devoting only four to seven minutes of unstructured play per day, while spending an average of seven and a half hours in front of electronic media.” Sedentary life negatively impacts health and wellbeing. Children become socially isolated and cut off from the natural world. It has become rare to see unsupervised children out in public.

Today playgrounds take on a greater role than ever. They must entice kids away from their screens and toward one another. They must offer physical challenges that are compliant with current safety standards and guidelines. Increasingly, they offer kids the chance to interact with trees and plants, and birds and bugs. They have to be attractive and safe as well. Today’s playgrounds may be the main spaces that urban children experience the outdoors. And they must be interesting, comfortable, and attractive enough for caregivers to enjoy spending time in them as well. So what is a great playground today?

A place to experiment and invent
Instead of large metal “post and platform” play structures that never change and become boring after the first few visits, kids want to be able to manipulate their physical environments. Providing a supply of simple movable elements that kids can rearrange and build with has proven to be a big hit. They don’t have to be expensive. Capitol Hill landscape architect Anya Sattler says that thin slices of tree trunks, sometimes called “tree cookies” are a big hit with children because they can move them around and build things with them. Outdoor blackboards or easels made of plexiglass are great for drawing and painting, and are easily cleaned. They can be used by small groups of kids at the same time. Outdoor musical instruments are another way that kids can change their environments, with sound – drums and xylophones designed for outdoor play are another great group activity that sparks creative collaborative play. A simple outdoor stage with an accessible storage shed or container with dress-up clothes and props is another outdoor play element through which kids can invent games and pretend characters, fostering social interaction and creative, collaborative play.

A place to discover and observe
Nature play in urban environments is a gateway experience through which kids can become curious about plants, animals, and other living things. Introducing flowering plants that attract pollinators, berry-producing fruits, trees that flower and change in the seasons, rain gardens that attract frogs and birds, are so important for children to become comfortable and curious about the natural world. It’s not that difficult to mix natural areas with more traditional play equipment. In fact, designing a garden-like area with a cluster of boulders to sit on can be a great intimate space for children to have some quiet time. Sand play remains a great creative activity that naturally lends itself to experimentation with water, and all kinds of building games. Sand is a timeless play element, one of the first playground features to appear in city parks.

An accessible place where children of all abilities can play together
The 2010 American with Disabilities Act (ADA) incorporated guidelines for playgrounds into federal law. This means that public playgrounds (which includes private schools) must offer spaces allowing all kids to equally approach, enter, and use the space. That means accessible walkways, and platforms and other accommodations for less able-bodied kids. But inclusive play goes beyond the ADA. It means creating play opportunities for kids of all abilities to play together. Some contemporary play equipment does this beautifully, in ways that don’t seem clunky.

LSI’s Omni spinner offers a “merry-go-round” experience with back support that is fun for groups of all kids. It’s still a fast spinning experience, but safer than a traditional flat platform merry-go-round. There are swings that have safe platforms for wheelchairs that are side-by-side with traditional belt swings. And there are wheelchair accessible garden and sand play features that allow a child to pull up and play with the soil and/or and at their height. These elements don’t visually appear different from the playground ensemble, so they can eliminate the social stigma faced by kids that would have been excluded in the past. Having wheelchair navigable playground surfacing is another way to allow kids of all abilities to navigate the playground space without impairment. With good design, these spaces look beautiful and well-integrated.

A place to safely take risks
Certified playground safety inspectors are taught that the difference between a risk and a hazard is that a risk is a challenge which children choose to undertake, while a hazard is an unexpected environmental situation that occurs without warning. Since the advent of playground safety standards about 30 years ago, playground fatalities have declined. The task equipment manufacturers now face is to design interesting, challenging, and safe play structures that aren’t so bland that kids lose interest in them after a few visits. In response to the sentiment that playgrounds have become “too safe,” some people have created “adventure playgrounds” which are spaces filled with building materials and various tools in which lightly supervised kids can build things on their own terms. A recent New York Times article (05/10/19), “Make Playgrounds a Little More Dangerous,” made the case that a little danger fosters more self-awareness in kids, which can actually reduce the incidence of injuries. The North American Adventure Play Association has many examples of these types of spaces. 

A couple of playgrounds that offer the type of mixed experiences described here are just across the river in Alexandria. The Burgundy Farm Country Day School has an open campus open on weekends (during school only open to students). There, the Washington, DC landscape architecture firm Oculus designed a very long embankment slide and a play structure with climbing nets, swings, a spinner, and more. In the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, the new Mount Vernon Community School playground will open in mid-August. This three-quarter acre space that I designed, has musical instruments, a nest swing, stage, spinners, a mini-soccer field, a grassy hill, and kinder-play area with natural wooden climbing structures, all surrounded by flowering plants and shrubs chosen to attract songbirds and other pollinators.

A great playground is a place of discovery that offers new experiences each time you visit, and the chance to share the joy of movement and play with other kids. Seven minutes of outdoor play a day doesn’t cut it. This summer, explore some new playgrounds with your child and see how much outdoor time free of screens you can spend together.


Cheryl Corson is a local landscape architect and CPSI (Certified Playground Safety Inspector) who designs playgrounds and believes children should be safe while free to experience the natural world together. She grew up playing on the streets of Brooklyn. https://corsonlearning.com