Joe Cooper on designing outdoor spaces for children
Most garden spaces serve a variety of uses. Often, they not only need to look beautiful, but also provide space for adults to relax and offer inspiring places for children to play. Designing a cohesive garden space that meets these seemingly conflicting demands can feel like a challenge, but it is possible to design an aesthetically pleasing garden space that caters to both grown-ups and kids.
The first thing you, as a designer, should do when considering how to incorporate play into a garden space is put yourself in the child’s shoes. Try to imagine what sort of play would ignite their imagination. An outdoor play area can cater to a variety of different types or combinations of play, including active, adventurous, imaginative, social, role, sensory and educational play. Different forms of play naturally overlap – children may be simultaneously exploring (exploratory educational play), pretending (imaginative play) and interacting with others (social play).
Play for all ages
Spaces that satisfy a wide range of play needs and types are ideal and are more likely to engage a wider range of children. Elements like monkey bars, balancing logs and play towers with slides, swings and climbing walls are great for encouraging active, adventurous and physical play. Social play can be enabled by incorporating playful spaces for children and adults to gather and play together – providing comfortable seating for adults is crucial for a space that encourages grown-ups and kids to spend time together.
Consider the age and number of the children that will use the play area, their physical abilities as well as their play needs and preferences. Items like sand funnels and mud kitchens, which enable exploratory and roleplay activities, will appeal to young children; whilst older children will enjoy more physically challenging and adventurous equipment like rope swings, firemen’s poles and zip wires.
Don’t just think about the present – consider how these aspects might change and evolve as the children grow and develop physically, and psychologically too, and how you can future-proof the play area by ensuring that it could adapt to these changing needs. Equipment that can be used with adaptable attachments, like our split tepee structure that can be used with interchangeable attachments like nets, swings and hammocks, are an easy way to adapt a play area as children grow. Bespoke equipment is easier to change, with elements removed, added to and adapted as kids mature, in a way that is not usually possible with standard manufactured equipment.
Figure out if the play area will be used primarily for individual children playing alone, or groups of children who will play and interact together, as this will also affect the type of equipment you choose for the space. Swings and musical instruments that enable an individual child to achieve playful outcomes on their own are ideal. For groups of children, things like buckets with chains and a pulley system or speaking tubes will encourage children to socialise and work together to achieve a goal. Accessibility should also always be considered, bearing in mind who will be using the space and their ability.
One of the key things that is often neglected in playscape design is what opportunities the existing landscape offers. Perhaps there is existing planting or natural undergrowth that could be used to allow children to explore nature and wildlife? Woodland areas can be particularly fruitful, as they offer lots of opportunities for exploratory, imaginative and active play – children have a natural inclination to climb trees. Maybe there are existing elements of the garden’s topography such as slopes, streams and grassy banks that could be used for slides and adventurous crossings.
Fitting in to the landscape
Decide to what extent you plan to integrate play into the existing layout and usage of the garden, or whether the play area will be separated partially or fully from the rest of the garden. Don’t forget about sightlines, especially for adults supervising children at play – parents of younger children in particular often prefer to keep them in view at all times, whilst older children will relish the prospect of places to hide and build secret dens.
How will the play area work with the rest of the garden and how it is used? A well-designed play area will offer inspiring and cohesive routes between the different features. Linking features such as log hops, balancing logs, ropeways or simple winding paths cut in long grass will transform the appeal of a play area into somewhere much more interesting.
Consider whether you will include areas under cover for shelter and comfort, like a treehouse, playhut or simple canopy. This will extend the usability of the play space throughout the year in all weather conditions.
If you are planning new play structures to sit within the landscape, it’s important to look at how they will fit within the space and site topography. If you plan to purchase structures, such as a play tower, from a playground supplier, bear in mind that structures purchased from standard catalogue companies necessitate installation upon flat ground only. If the topography of the space is not entirely flat, it may be better to engage a bespoke play company, who will be able to design and construct equipment specifically suited to the topography and situation of your site. They will also be able to offer a higher level of support on your project, and provide a full end-to-end service with advice and support at every stage, if required.
Planning to design your own play equipment? It would be a good idea to consult a qualified professional to ensure your designs comply with current safety guidelines. Common safety issues such as fall zones and entrapment risks need to be taken into account, and most professional suppliers will conform to industry safety standards and be able to offer safety checks and insurance.
Safety is paramount in any playspace, but it’s also a good idea to incorporate some low-level risk opportunities into your design. An element of risk is important for children, so they learn about the consequences of their actions and how to manage risk effectively. Low-level risk can be incorporated in a managed way by adding platforms and structures of differing heights, for example, which encourage children to assess the level of risk themselves as they climb to different heights and cross over wider gaps.