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To be healthy, kids need to play actively outdoors. Well-designed, safe, natural and innovative playspaces give kids a chance to have fun and be active as they grow. Outdoor playspaces also make an important contribution towards creating healthy, active communities.

When you choose and build the right design for your school or community playspace, it helps kids to keep active and lets kids, adults, families and residents enjoy play time and social time together.

Today, outdoor playspaces come in many shapes and sizes. In this article you’ll find information on:

  • the types of playspaces being built
  • how playspace projects benefit schools and communities
  • tips on launching a playspace project for your school or in your community
  • safety and maintenance considerations

Many Types of Playspaces

Before launching a playspace project for your school or community, it’s helpful to think about recent playspace design trends and the different types of playspaces.  Your budget – along with school and/or community inputs – will affect your final decision, but the more you know about the possibilities, the better choices and decisions you can make.

Here are some basic descriptions of common playspaces:

  • “traditional” playgrounds or playspaces usually include slides, decks and wooden structures, tunnels, swings and climbing apparatus
  • “designed” playspaces may include some traditional features, but are more complex and typically require the help of a professional designer to meet the needs of a particular school or community
  • “natural” playspaces may include some traditional aspects, but are designed with a focus on other features such as walking trails; small, wooded areas; ponds and fountains to splash in; small hills for climbing, rolling and sledding; boulders to climb on; or other natural features
  • “walking or fitness trails” are a type of designed playspace that encourage kids and adults to walk or run between a variety of stations set up to improve strength and flexibility; stations can be simple, like a bench to stretch on, or more complex, like a series of logs to balance on
  • “tarmac” playspaces are usually surfaced with asphalt or concrete and provide multiple opportunities for physical activity and socialization; these spaces often have painted lines for different games, such as hopscotch, four-square or basketball
  • “innovative” playspaces include adventure playspaces, city farms, special play day events and in some cases just loose equipment that kids can move and manipulate; these types of play spaces generally operate under the supervision of trained adult leaders

Of course, each playspace is unique. If you’re involved in planning a new playspace, the good news is that you have plenty of options and features to choose from!

Whatever your chosen type of playspace, aim to ensure your design is multi-use. Can your playspace be used after school? By community members? During phys-ed class? On the weekend?

Remember to think about how the playspace will be used during all four seasons. A one-season facility is not nearly as useful as one that can be enjoyed all year long.

Seek Out Expert Advice
Kim Sanderson, an innovative projects coordinator for the City of Edmonton, notes that traditional playgrounds, while popular, do have some drawbacks. For example, the equipment tends to place an emphasis on physical strength and therefore can favour older, stronger boys.

Traditional playgrounds also tend to draw all the kids to one or two of the most popular pieces of equipment on the site, suggests Sanderson.

“We need to find ways for everyone to play equally on a site,” says Sanderson. He suggests that the solution is planning for a designed playspace that allows kids of all ages to spread out to all parts of the space, rather than clustering competitively at popular equipment.

“Designed play spaces invite an array of play opportunities for all ages and abilities,” says Sanderson. “We want to see a lot more designed sites.”

Designed play spaces rely less on prefabricated equipment. Typically, they’re designed by landscape architects who gather input from kids and other stakeholders and then base the design on that input. For example, at the request of stakeholders an architect might include a skateboarding area or a pond in a designed play space.

Natural Playspaces
Natural playspaces use a blend of natural areas, water and local plants to interest children in learning about the wonders and secrets of the natural world. Swings and slides may still be there, but children get a chance to explore the natural world as they play.

Natural playspaces:

  • allow children to be active and creative
  • are specially designed to work equally well for boys and girls, and for children of all ages and abilities
  • promote light, moderate or vigorous physical activity that supports children’s growth and development
  • offer lots of interesting and enjoyable places for kids (and adults) to spend time
  • offer a wide range of activity choices, such as climbing, rolling down hills, playing with loose equipment, playing with water and sand, connecting with nature, talking in quiet social areas, moving around on interesting pathways, or riding a bike over bumps

In natural play spaces, children can play freely but can also be involved in organized programs led by a teacher, parent or other community member. Each child can find the activities that he or she most wants to do. The variety offered by a natural play space appeals to kids and supports a wide range of play opportunities.

Innovative Playspaces
Sanderson offers that newer types of “innovative” playspaces are more common in Europe and relatively new to North America and Alberta. Edmonton has one such facility, Edmonton Cityfarm. Sanderson says the concept is well-established in Europe where there are more than 1,000 city farm/adventure sites operating.

“The idea is that kids can actually change the site,” says Sanderson. At these spaces, kids might build a fort with saws, hammers and timber and then paint their new fort. At a city farm/adventure play site, kids might fashion a clay oven and then use it to cook food, or they might make a straw bale maze.

“There is so much regimented activity in the daily life of kids,” says Sanderson. “Innovative play spaces and adventure play allow kids to break out of that and be creative and active. It helps them develop the skills they need to be healthy adults.”

Launching a School or Community Playspace Project
Whether the playspace is owned by the school or started by a community, the development or redevelopment of a playspace is usually a community affair where all stakeholders and users should be invited to be involved.

This may involve various leaders or stakeholders, such as:

  • school administrators and teachers
  • students and children from the area
  • parents and/or a parent-teacher association
  • community league members and nearby residents
  • local officials, e.g., municipal employees
  • daycare or after-care operators in the area

Ask people what they would like to see in a new playspace and how they could help advance the project. Form a committee and make plans to discuss playspace design options and comparative costs.

As you develop a master plan for your project, be sure to set timelines and goals, and assign responsibilities to your team members. Seek out funding sources and get a handle on the budget. There are some types of provincial or municipal grants available for the development of outdoor play spaces.

Removing Barriers, Open Communications
Jennifer Finnigan, a children and youth program co-ordinator with the Alberta Recreation and Parks Association (ARPA), suggests that working on a playspace together breaks down the barriers between people.

“So often today people don’t know their neighbours and neighbourhoods. When the community gets a chance to spearhead a playspace, it creates a sense of ownership and pride.”

Sanderson suggests that a project needs a steering committee, with people dedicated to various aspects, such as operations, planning and design. He adds, “Most importantly, the process should involve getting input from children.”

Talk to Children When Planning a Playspace
Whether you are planning a school or community playspace, experience has shown that involving children is important.

Ask your own children, school kids and neighbourhood kids about the kinds of play they like and the types of playspaces and playground equipment they prefer.  Listen and look for cues that tell you what they like best.

If your project includes an engineer or landscape architect, make sure that the project leaders are seeking input from children, parents and residents along the way. This can help to improve the final design features and ensure the playspace will be used often by children, school kids, families and residents in the area.

Safety and Maintenance are Vital
When planning a playspace, make sure that the playspace complies with the CSA-Z614 Children’s Playspaces and Equipment standard, a set of guidelines by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA).

In addition to meeting applicable standards, adult supervision of children should occur at playspaces whenever possible. Schools and communities should develop plans for safety measures and protocols during the planning process.

An important new addition to CSA-Z614 is Annex H. This annex explains how to make play spaces accessible for children with disabilities.

Complying with CSA-Z614/Annex H guidelines is voluntary, not mandatory. So it’s important for playground planners to make a conscious decision to meet the guidelines. They also need to check with equipment suppliers to make sure equipment complies with the guidelines.

Before you get started on a design, double-check on any other applicable safety standards and requirements of your school district or municipality.

Most playspaces have a life expectancy of at least 15 years. But equipment will wear out, especially if it’s not properly maintained. Without proper maintenance, the likelihood of kids being injured is much higher. Your maintenance plans should be in accordance with CSA-Z614. Be sure to create a long-term plan and a budget for maintenance.

Many Ways to Play
Playgrounds and playspaces can encourage structured play, facilitated play, non-competitive play and open-ended play. Holding organized activities or programs at a playspace is another way to make practical, safe and educational use of the space.

When children really enjoy a well-designed play space, they want to return there again and again. In many cases, a playspace will develop a special meaning for kids, as they experience new things and develop friendships. For many, wonderful memories of their childhood play will stay with them as they grow up.

Schools and communities should be proud of their efforts to create safe, well-planned playspaces for children, families and residents. Quality, outdoor playspaces are a vital part of healthy, active communities!

Learn More:

Community Facility Enhancement Program
Financial assistance from Alberta Culture and Community Spirit for expanding and upgrading Alberta's community facilities.

Community Initiatives Program
Financial assistance from Alberta Culture and Community Spirit for Alberta project-based initiatives in areas such as health and recreation.

Development Initiatives Program
Support from Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation for Albertans working on projects and programs in the areas of sport, recreation, parks and wildlife.

CSA-Z614 Children’s Playspaces and Equipment standard

CSA-Z614 Annex H FAQ
A fact sheet for people who want to make new or redeveloped play spaces accessible to people with disabilities.

Balancing the benefits of exercise with the risk of injury on playground equipment
Information from Safe Kids Canada about the value of play spaces for children.

Evergreen School Grounds Program
Evergreen is a charity that explores nature, culture and community. Read their report, Grounds for Action: Promoting Physical Activity through School Ground Greening in Canada.

International Play Association
The International Play Association focuses on children’s environments, play leadership and child development through play. The association’s website outlines the many issues of play in childhood and some of the solutions for ensuring a playful childhood for all.

Children and Nature Network 
The Children & Nature Network (C&NN) was created to encourage and support the people and organizations working to reconnect children with nature. C&NN provides access to the latest news and research in the field and a peer-to-peer network of researchers and individuals, educators and organizations dedicated to children's health and well-being.

Cityfarm Edmonton
The website for Cityfarm Edmonton.

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