A guide on how to design school playgrounds by leading specialist Robert Sergent Fairly
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How to Design a School playground

by Robert Sergent-Fairley

The most important factor in designing a Children`s Playground is to remember , at all times , that this is a special area for the children , where they can relax and play and exercise and use their imagination and live out their fantasies .

See the Design through the Children's Eyes

You need to put yourself in their place and to see life through their eyes . You must not design what you want ; you must design what they want . If possible , you should try to arrange with the School for an early meeting with the children , when they can express their wishes for their new Playground . These meetings are very informative as invariably they reveal an idea or items which otherwise may have been overlooked by the Head or the Teachers .

Get the Children to Design the Playgrounds

It is a good idea for the children to prepare drawings beforehand , of their “Dream Playground” . These drawings follow a definite pattern , from year to year ; children have changed very little in their wishes since Roman times . The main items children draw are colourful flowers , toffee apple trees , a Playhouse , large green spaces , endless climbing platforms , Tree House , Tunnels , Bridges and Quiet Gardens . Other items , not so high up the scale , but still always requested are Bright Pathways and Sand Pit , a Soil Digging area , Friendship seats , Covered seating areas , Water Cascades , Trampolines , Zip Wires , Huge Slides and a Barbeque area .

However , it is very interesting that in the last two years , more and more children are drawing vegetable and fruit growing beds , as well as their other more active preferences . These drawing sessions can also be very informative for the school as they give a close insight into each child’s mind and their aspirations for their future . I can remember one child who requested a complete Golf Course ! Another child requested a massive Music stage for Pop Concerts . Yet another child who asked for an Ice Rink , complete with a McDonalds !

Input from the Head and Teachers

Before commencing your design , you must also spend time with the Head ( or Assistant Head ) and with the Class Teachers . You will normally only have one meeting with them . Thus it is very important that you write down quickly all their thoughts , wishes and instructions . You may think you can remember everything but my experience shows that this is an impossibility . Therefore you must take meticulous notes , which you will find invaluable when you finally commence the design . At these meetings you need to ascertain that the Budget ( Funds available ) are sufficient for the required Project .

You also need to verify if the School has Special Needs children as you must allow for them in your design . You need to also check carefully on the ages of the children who will use the Playground . Obviously , different age groups have different requirements . For example , under 7’s require many small individual play areas with lots of colour ; 7 to 11’s require wider spaces with masses of running and climbing and Quiet areas ; over 11’s are tricky to keep entertained but generally require more robust and more active areas .

Styles of Playground

During your meetings , you need to clearly ascertain the style of Playground required . The two main styles are Ultra Modern with Modular Structures and Artificial surfaces or the Traditional style with Natural Play areas and an abundance of Planting . During the last 6 years , I have seen a huge swing away from the impersonal and stereotype Modular structures Playgrounds ; instead , more and more Heads , Governors and local Authorities are insisting on “Green Spaces” and Natural Outdoor Play and Natural Outdoor Learning areas . I personally do not design Ultra Modern Playgrounds with Modular structures and Wet Pour surfaces . I can only advise you therefore about Natural Play areas .

Plants and Planting

When commencing your Design , you must bear in mind that the most important items in your design will be the Plants .
You can have as many exciting Play and Learning areas in your Design as you wish but it is the Plants and the Plants alone which will set the scene and which will create the desired effect for the children .

Raised Planters on Asphalt Surfaces

Most existing Playgrounds are old asphalt surfaces so the question is , how do you plant a mixture of 700 Semi Mature shrubs , climbers , sensory Plants and Trees in a 2500 square metre Asphalt Playground , without spending £ 60,000 in removing the existing ground surface and bringing in hundreds of tons of Topsoil ? The answer is simply , to create raised Plant beds of differing shapes and heights . Bearing costs in mind , it is preferable ( and visually more attractive ) to create raised Timber Plant beds ( as opposed to stone or brick raised beds ) . The children are expecting a Garden , in which to play . Therefore you must design this Playground in exactly the same way as you would a normal Private Garden . You begin with the Perimeter and plan raised beds along the entire perimeter .

These may be interspersed at intervals with entry points , which can have overhead arches ( or pergolas ) covered in scented evergreen climbers . Once the borders are organised , now you view the central area and decide the best position for each of your main items. At this point , you should also formulate a plan for the ground surfaces you intend to use .

Imaginative Design Features

The idea of removal of all the old Asphalt or concrete surfaces is generally unnecessary as with imagination , you can cover all the areas with interesting and exciting new surfaces . These can include beautiful Magic Mosaics , Timeless Timber deckings , Soft gravels or pebbles , Bark Chips , Water areas , Sand areas , Soil areas , Bog Gardens , Vegetable Gardens , Scientific Gardens or of course , an Artificial Grass covering ( nowadays these have all the appearance of real grass but obviously can be used for 365 days and require no maintenance )

The best course of action now is to write down a list of the items to be included in your design. You must take into careful consideration the aspect of the Playground . For example , is it in a Wind Tunnel or is it as open as the Kalahari desert ?
You must place your main items in suitable positions and either face them towards the sun ( a slide must never face the sun whereas a Water feature is enhanced if it faces the sun ) . Consideration must now be given to the space required around each item . For example , a Vegetable Garden requires minimum surrounding space whereas a Play/Activity Platform requires considerable space ( according to its height ) . This requirement of space will necessitate some considerable juggling with the best position for each of your items . These individual items will become “Zones” and should be easily accessible .

Exciting Areas and Ground Levels

Children always enjoy , moving ( or running madly at full speed ) from one Interest Zone to another. This mad headlong running , brings me to another important point , which is “ground levels” . Whilst organising your new design , with different new ground surfaces , you must allow in the Construction for a finished uniform ground level throughout the new Playground . All the surfaces must meet evenly and there must be no “Trip” areas . Once you have decided on the best position for each of you “Zones” you can now commence the designs of these areas .

As with the main Playground , your first priority is to plan your raised Plant beds . These can surround each “zone” or can separate the “zones” and you can design Arches or Pergolas ( with climbers ) as attractive entrances to each “ zone “You should aim at changes in height with the plants . Always remember that you are designing this through the eyes of a child ! A five feet high Palm tree may look small to you but to a 4 year old child it will appear much much taller and will thus seem very exciting . You must therefore intersperse your planting with taller interesting items , such as Palm Trees , Bamboos , Olive Trees and other Exotic tall plants .

However , do not overdo the Arches or Pergolas or tall plants as these could create a “scary “atmosphere ; there is a very fine dividing line for small children between and “ exciting “ area and a “scary area “ All your plantings must ultimately blend together to create a feeling for the children of a beautiful garden with a mass of activity items contained therein .
Whilst designing your Garden , you must remember that this is a School Garden and thus Maintenance must be at a minimum . Raised plant beds are a “must” in this scheme and it is very simple to arrange an Automatic Micro Irrigation ( or Drip System ) in these Planters . Planting , as I have said , is actually the main criteria in your new Playground .
For the low raised Timber Planters , you should concentrate on a myriad of dwarf all year interest Sensory Plants .

Climbers should be evergreen and scented , with a variety of flowering seasons . The “excitement” and the “Adventure” in your Playground will come from your choice of trees . There are many very exciting hardy Palm Trees ideally suited to Children Playgrounds ; Tree Ferns are amazing to create the ambience in the “Quiet Area” ; Bamboos between the Activity Platforms area create a “Wild” and “Jungly” effect ; Olive trees look good in all the “Zones” and will withstand all weathers and all forms of neglect . Fruit trees ( generally deciduous ) are equally exciting for children as not only can they watch the growth of the fruits , but they can also eat them . Finally , you must keep a close eye in your design on all the Health and Safety rules which surround School Playgrounds .

Many of these rules are based on Common Sense and are simple to implement . However , when designing Activity items , Bridges , Tunnels , Moving items , raised items and even ground surfaces , you need to abide strictly by the clearly laid down rules and regulations . A final word of advice is that whilst doing your design you must bear strongly in mind , the construction techniques to be used in the implementing of your design . Try to imagine you yourself taking this design and actually attempting to make it on site . With this in mind , do not be over adventurous and keep it simple and straightforward .

“ Let the plants do the talking ” .

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