Safety Second? Designing Playgrounds with Discovery in Mind

Wait. Safety First, Safety First. It's a Liability issue. They could hurt themselves on [blank].

Bright colors and plastic slides are fun, but do they promote creativity? Photo Terence Ong /  Wikimedia Commons

Bright colors and plastic slides are fun, but do they promote creativity? Photo Terence Ong / Wikimedia Commons

These phrases can be heard quite frequently in a design office, particularly when designing a play area for kids. Whether it's creating a soft ground surface, fencing in (or out) unsafe areas, or making sure the corners on that metal piece aren't too sharp, we're constantly looking at ways to create play areas that are safe for kids. But as a designer, it's easy to make safety your only priority, forgetting the things that make play areas so great in the first place: a sense of discovery. 

Each one of us remembers experiencing that sensation of discovery as a kid: whether it was exploring in the woods behind our neighborhood, building forts and catching lizards, or playing that neighborhood-wide game of capture the flag, sneaking through alleyways and backyards to gain strategic advantage. These moments of "free play" seem harder to come by these days, don't they?

Man-made, structured playgrounds, often constructed out of brightly-colored metal or plastic pieces, can only offer so much in terms of real discovery and creativity. What they do offer is total control over the experience by the designer, smoothing edges, softening surfaces, and ultimately limiting liability. The place to play, as well as the type of play, is predetermined for the kids, cutting short the possibility of creative discovery. 

Nature Play Areas, open-ended outdoor natural playgrounds, are an attempt to solve this growing conflict between liability and creativity. 

Photo by Rod Wojtanik  Learning Landscapes Design

Photo by Rod Wojtanik Learning Landscapes Design

The playground of the future is beginning to take shape — and it looks a lot like the backyard of the past.

Designers of children’s play spaces are increasingly looking beyond slides, jungle gyms and other plastic-coated structures in their quest to create fun, safe, healthy environments. As a result, kids are running outside and discovering play areas dotted with old standbys: sand, water, boulders, hills and logs.
— Jeffrey MacDonald, USA Today

These "old standbys" are increasing in demand among our clients, as well. Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center, in nearby Cedar Hill, Texas, is looking to Studio Outside to design a nature play area for large school groups of children. With constructive, creative play and education in mind, we're beginning to understand the nature of explorative play. As part of the design team, I feel torn in a couple different directions. As a landscape designer, I want to make something really super cool in the space - a winding sculptural tunnel or angled climbing wall - something that will grab attention and say "this place is designed really well." On the other hand is the kid in me. The kid that remembers how fun it was to be able to construct my own forts in the woods behind my house growing up, and how quickly time would fly when I was able to truly own the space in which I was playing. 

Photo via

If the anecdotal evidence from our collective remembered childhood isn't enough, there are some other resources on the matter. Joe Frost, a "leading expert on play and playgrounds" and Professor Emeritus at UT Austin, was interviewed in 2008 by the American Journal of Play. He has the following to say about the current state of American play:

In general terms, limiting children’s outdoor play harms their cognitive, social, and language development. It limits their physical fitness, hurts their health, and reduces learning and the ability to cope with trauma. Research shows that when children engage in free, spontaneous play outdoors, they adapt more readily to their culture, to society, and to the world. They build fine and gross motor skills. They learn to negotiate and solve problems. They stretch their imagination. They become more flexible in their thinking, and they develop creative and aesthetic appreciation.
Photo via

Photo via

And finally, Joe has a little advice for us:

Architects, naturalists, manufacturers, self-build proponents, and others are capable of designing and constructing good and bad playgrounds. We just need to ensure that we build good ones—playgrounds that provide props, natural and built, that invite and accommodate various forms of play in restricted spaces. Fortunately, Americans are gradually realizing what children have always known, and what history has always shown, and what research has demonstrated throughout the past one hundred years—play and play environments matter.

I agree, Joe. 

Dogwood Canyon's Nature Play Area is progressing, and we're still surprising ourselves that providing a bundle of sticks and stones seems just as effective, if not more so, than building a play structure ourselves. It's a tricky balance between designed structure and indeterminate space. We continually have to transport ourselves back in time to discover what types of natural exploration and discovery perhaps even prompted us to become landscape architects in the first place. 



Journal of Play - What’s Wrong with America’s Playgrounds and How to Fix Them [PDF]

USA Today - Natural Playgrounds are Growing into a National Trend

Design Principles for Nature Play Spaces

Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center