Designing for children is a special process that requires thought, knowledge and understanding.

Successful play spaces are not simply ordered from a catalogue, put in the ground and left – they require careful planning, continuing care and maintenance, and should be reviewed and updated periodically to make sure they provide the best possible play opportunities for children and young people. Architects and designers must also ensure that services and facilities are not designed only for children’s current needs but also their long-term well-being by considering the environmental impact.

At InspiredPlay, we believe in a holistic approach to designing play spaces for children, thinking about the setting, features and use of equipment together from the very beginning. We believe successful play spaces should be located and designed with reference to their surroundings; play equipment and features chosen for the way they can complement and enhance their setting as well as for their play value.

If you’re an architect designing for children, here are some things you might want to consider at each stage in the process…

Preparation

Preparation and planning are essential to the long-term success of your play space. Careful consideration must be given to location; playgrounds in hidden and inaccessible places will not be well used by children, and are more likely to be vandalised. Planning must also consider what kind of space is needed locally and the abilities which need to be provided for.

The best play spaces are carefully conceived and designed. It is not possible to develop and build a scheme overnight, and rushing at the development stage may cause problems further down the line when it could be more expensive to make changes.

Design

A design-led approach to play space development generally results in play areas which are landscapes containing play equipment – rather than more conventional ‘playgrounds’. Involvement of a professional designer experienced in designing play spaces is critical to this approach as good technical skills in landscape design and an understanding of play are both essential.

By using a site-specific design-led approach, it is possible to create play spaces offering a wider range of play opportunities and more choice for children about how they play. The play value, landscaping, equipment and features should all be embedded in the designer’s thinking from the start, designed especially for and to enhance its location. Input from a professional designer experienced in landscape design and with an understanding of play is key.

Designing for inclusive play

The following six principles form the foundation of inclusive design:

  • Ease of use
  • Freedom of choice and access to mainstream activities
  • Diversity and difference
  • Legibility and predictability
  • Quality
  • Safety

Designing for sustainability

Environmental points to consider include:

  • whole life environmental impact of materials – sourcing, manufacture, recycled content, toxic material content, carbon emissions, disposal/reuse of materials
  • conservation, and ideally enhancement, of wildlife habitats in and around the play space
  • minimization of energy and water use during construction/refurbishment and ongoing management of the play space.

Use

Animating the play space with organized events and activities will encourage use and establish it as somewhere special. In the case of a redesigned space, it can even help change its previous culture. Ongoing events and activities will keep the space dynamic and help maintain contact with the local community and users.

They can be low key and intimate or on a grand scale. They can be for children, children with their carers, or the whole community. They can encourage local talent, such as musicians and storytellers. Events organised at times when the space is not normally used can have a magical atmosphere and create new feelings and memories.

Maintenance

Planning for ongoing maintenance is central to the design process – successful play areas are sensitively and carefully maintained and resources must be allocated for a high standard of maintenance. A successful and well-used play space will show wear and tear, and a degree of this is perfectly acceptable, but it must not be allowed to descend into neglect, which can quickly become a downward spiral. Good design and purchase of high quality equipment and features may mean a greater initial outlay but should have the advantage of lower maintenance costs.

Play spaces that fall out of use even temporarily because equipment is not working or is poorly maintained quickly become a source of frustration to users and may become more vulnerable to further damage. Regular repairs and a quick response time are both essential. People from the local community or friends’ groups can also form part of the inspection team.

Review

Completion of a play space does not mark the end of the design cycle but the beginning of a new phase: one of continual review. A good play space evolves and is never finished. In a vibrant, living play space the designer keeps a close eye on how the space is used and looks for opportunities to introduce new elements. Allocating a budget for post-development adaptations can increase the play value.

Some play providers aim to hold back a proportion of the contract value to make changes. Whatever the mechanism is, it is vitally important to allow adequate revenue and sometimes capital resources to allow scope for improvements.

As we have learned, the involvement of a suitably experienced designer is integral to creating good quality play spaces and something to which all schemes should aspire. Our passion and mission at InspiredPlay is to collaborate with Hawaii’s leaders to provide innovative play environments for our community to enjoy for years to come. Want to work with us? Don’t hesitate to get in touch and let’s bring your vision to life!