Designing for play

Liz Townsend, a play space designer at HAGS-SMP with 18 years’ experience, addresses the key aspects in this specialist area of design that is rarely covered in formal landscape architecture study. Below are some of the essential design elements to consider

Place setting
The location of a play space is as important as the play area itself. The designer should think about other formal or informal places children can access within walking or cycling distance? How will the new play space add value and enhance this?

Consider distance from home, access routes and boundaries – what lies beyond that could enhance or be detrimental to a newly built play space? Also think about the type of users and frequency of use this space may have – is the play area location in close proximity to housing? Should it be on route to and from school or perhaps near a busy shopping centre?

What barriers could there be for children playing there – a road too busy to cross safely, or a location too secluded and unsafe? What environmental factors could enhance the play area? Are there woods nearby that could offer even more play opportunities? Or existing facilities like a community centre or shop that could help ensure high usage of the new play space?

Play types
Design the play space with the 16 types of play in mind and consider how they can be integrated to offer a great variety of experiences. Great play areas are accessible to everyone and create opportunities for progression from easy activities to more difficult challenges as children grow and develop.

Physical play (loco-motor and rough and tumble play types) is the most obvious and can incorporate movement, climbing, sliding, rocking, rotating and swinging.

Social aspects like group play, interaction and role play are just as important, as they allow children to participate in creative and fantasy play. Giving children the opportunity to explore, discover and use their imagination, creating a place loved by the community that children want to return to again and again.

Consider the setting and surroundings. Is the space set in a rural or built up location? What is the style, age, texture and colour of the surroundings? Do you want your design to be sympathetic to the surroundings and blend in or do you want to create something more striking and in deliberate contrast to the vernacular? Is there a design code for the development?

There are so many possibilities with a wide variety of products available for both the landscaping elements and the play equipment structures that a design style should be considered and agreed upon from the outset with buy-in from the client and other stakeholders. This should cover materials, textures, colour palate and height/scale. Users should be considered; will they be very young children who recognise and respond to bright colour accents or older children who tend to have a more refined palate and recognise design styles in the world around them?

A sense of personal safety is very important to visitors. This may be derived from good visibility and sight lines into and out of the play space. Cleanliness of the space can be considered; whether dogs are allowed, the general appearance of the surroundings and good repair of structures, equipment and surfaces.

At design stage technical assessments should be made to determine risks children may encounter and what benefit this gives the child. As part of the risk-benefit assessment the designer must consider the layout of the site, desire lines, position of key features and equipment, areas of dynamic movement, creating bespoke elements and any risks that may be associated with the wider environment. Some risks are acceptable: “good risks” that are foreseeable and aid learning or provide a thrilling experience such as a big swing ride or high slide. Others are “bad risks” that should be mitigated by the designer to make them acceptable. A bad risk could be a deep river with strong current very close by or an inviting climbing tower that is structurally unsafe – children could not anticipate these risks for themselves, nor gain any benefit from encountering them in a ‘play’ situation.

The Health & Safety at Work Act is the umbrella law for public play areas, with many good practice guidelines published on designing and creating play areas that mitigate common pitfalls an inexperienced designer may face. Pre-construction design assessments and post installation inspection of the project by a specialist third party will give the owner peace of mind and helps securing insurance. Specialist bodies for advice are RoSPA, Play England, Play Wales, Play Scotland and the Association of Play Industries.

One way to ensure good practice is to specify play equipment with a certificate of safety testing, usually to the European Standard EN1176.

Consider how building materials will react to wear and tear, misuse, vandalism and sustainable sourcing. How long does the client expect this place to last for? Some materials develop an interesting patina with time and use; others break down and eventually fail to perform to their original purpose. Also consider the environmental impact of a location; it is coastal or prone to flooding? Is the site prone to vandalism, if so what kind? This should influence the materials and the way the play area is constructed to be appropriate and sustainable in its location.