Playground Design

Learn to design playgrounds -100 hour course, to createplay spaces that work, in homes, parks, schools, anywhere.

Course Code: BHT216
Fee Code: S2
Duration (approx) Duration (approx) 100 hours
Qualification Statement of Attainment
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Learn to Create a Landscape that is Sympathetic to the Play Experience.

Playgrounds are more than just off the shelf pieces of equipment; and proper playground design requires an understanding of what children do when they play; the different types of play, and how to create an environmental space that is conjusive to that play as well as meeting any other necessary design criteria, such as aesthetics, safety, cost and sustainability.
We have been teaching and writing about children's play and playground design since the 1970's and have gathered a wealth of resources and experience in this discipline. Our principal's book "The Environment of Play" has been used at universities from Australia to the USA to teach playground design; and through this course we offer you an opportunity to learn from our experience.

"Children learn more from play than they do from school. It is crucial to their social, physical and intellectual development. Anyone (Parent to landscaper) who develops a landscape that is to be used by children, has a responsibility to understand the full implications of what they are creating. It is critical that we enhance the play opportunities for future generations; and that involves understanding what play is, how children play, and then applying that knowledge to forming a play friendly environment"   John Mason  Author, the Environment of Play, former Playground Designer with Playgrounds and Recreation Assn of Vic. 


Lesson Structure

There are 8 lessons in this course:

  1. Overview of Parks and Playgrounds
    • Types of Playgrounds
    • Big Toy Playgrounds
    • Community Playgrounds
    • Adventure Playgrounds
    • Manipulating the Environment to provide for play
    • Play Forests; bamboo, pine, eucalypt, deciduous
    • Evaluating a Playground's value
    • Checklist for Functional Value of a Playground
    • Site Planning Process
    • Planning and Design
    • Insurance Considerations
    • Planning Theories: comprehensive, structure, systems, advocacy
    • Central Place Theory
  2. Playground Philosophy
    • What is Play
    • Children interacting with the Environment
    • Nature and Scope of Adventure Playgrounds
    • Establishing an Adventure Playground
    • The Adventure Play Leader
    • Site Design
  3. Preparing a Concept Plan
    • Planning for Play; planning levels, planning participants, processes
    • Stages of Planning
    • Project Questionnaire
    • Planning Principles
    • Design Procedure Step by Step
    • Minimising Costs in a Playground Development
    • Catering for Disabled People
    • Special Playgrounds
    • Case Study Playground in a Child Care Centre
    • Case Study in a Public Park
  4. Materials
    • Characteristics
    • Comparing and Choosing Options for Construction Materials
    • Barriers and Walls
    • Fences
    • Surfaces, paths and hard surfaced areas
    • Safety Characteristics of Different Surfaces
    • Construction with Wood
  5. Park & Playground Structures and Materials
    • Components of a Playground
    • Further Design Factors
    • Using Plants in Playgrounds
    • Buildings and Structures; gazebos, outdoor rooms, cubbies, shelters, sheds, belvederes, pergolas etc
    • Planting around a Building
    • Siting of Buildings
    • Building Floors
    • Deciding what building to use
    • Earth Forming, Shaping and Earthmoving Equipment
    • Checklist for Construction Issues to Watch Out For
  6. Local and Neighbourhood Parks
    • Considering Local Needs
    • Fun and Fitness Trails
    • Skateboarding Facilities
    • Multi Purpose Courts
    • Park Interpretive and Environmental Facilities
    • BMX Facilities
    • Motor Vehicles
    • Case Study: Community Play Park
  7. Community Participation In Park Development
    • History, Attitudes, Philosophy
    • Making a Working Bee Successful
    • Community Gardens
  8. Special Assignment.

Each lesson culminates in an assignment which is submitted to the school, marked by the school's tutors and returned to you with any relevant suggestions, comments, and if necessary, extra reading.


  • Determine the procedure to plan a park development, including a playground and other facilities.
  • Prepare a concept plan for a park or playground.
  • Assess the design of park components, including materials and equipment used in parks and playgrounds.
  • Determine appropriate design characteristics for a local or neighbourhood parks.
  • Determine legal implications involved in the design of a playground.
  • Design facilities to cater for movement throughout a park or playground.
  • Manage appropriate community participation in development of a park or playground.

What You Will Do

  • Explain how an understanding of play theory can be applied to the design of a playground.
  • Explain how the concept of recreational planning may influence the design of a specified park.
  • Determine factors which distinguish park design from home garden design.
  • Compare different planning processes used for developing designs for public landscapes, including: advocacy planning, strategic planning and community participation.
  • Explain historical influences upon park design, in your locality, including:
    • local history
    • national history.
  • Evaluate the functional depreciation of a specified playground over a period of at least ten years.
  • Explain the significance of demographic considerations on park design, in a specific locality.
  • Evaluate the designs of two different established parks, and two established playgrounds, visited by you.
  • Develop a brief for a park plan, through an interview with management of a specific site.
  • Collect preplanning information for a proposed park design; through surveying the site and interviewing both managers of the site, and intended users of the site.
  • Develop three alternative concept plans for a proposed park development; in accordance with a real design brief, either prepared by you with a client, or obtained as a brief for a job being put to tender.
  • Compare three alternative concept plans in an interview with a client, or prospective client, for a proposed park development; recording the interview session on audio tape.
  • Describe the design features of four different items of outdoor furniture intended for use in parks and playgrounds.
  • Compare the suitability of different barriers, including bollards, fences, plantings and walls, used in three different parks and/or playgrounds; visited and inspected by you.
  • Assess the design of garden constructions inspected by you in a childrens playground.
  • Compare various ground surfacing materials in terms of their application in park or playground design.
  • Explain design considerations for earth forming, in a specific park and playground.
  • Design a park plan for a specified site of 1,000 to 10,000 square metres, incorporating a themed play area.
  • Prepare a costing for the construction of a themed play area, designed by you.
  • Compare the appropriateness of fifteen different plants for use in a playground in terms of different factors including:
    • play possibilities
    • hardiness
    • toxicity.
  • Determine appropriate design criteria for the use of water in playgrounds.
  • Determine appropriate functions for neighbourhood parks.
  • Determine inappropriate functions for a neighbourhood park.
  • Analyse two neighbourhood parks by both; surveying users and observing users.
  • Evaluate the design of two different neighbourhood parks, visited and studied by you, against different criteria including:
    • Function
    • Aesthetics
    • Maintenance requirement
    • Environmental sympathy.
  • Recommend design modifications for a surveyed neighbourhood park.
  • Explain the significance of danger to the children's learning experience.
  • Determine how two different specific playground designs have been influenced by concerns about legal liability.
  • Conduct a legal risk analysis of a playground which has been established for more than ten years.
  • Develop guidelines for minimising legal liability in playground design, for an authority responsible for a specific playground.
  • Determine design criteria for different types of trails in parks including: *Fun and fitness trails
    • Environmental interpretation trails
    • Cycle paths
    • Linkages between parks
    • Roadways.
  • Compare the construction of three different specified paths within parks with reference to:
    • Durability
    • Safety
    • Function
    • Maintenance requirements.
  • Prepare a concept plan for a "specialist trail" in a park, such as; a fun and fitness trail, a cycle path or an environmental interpretation trail, following design standards in the industry.
  • Determine factors which impact on the success of a park/playground development which involves community participation.
  • Analyse community attitudes to a park or playground development, which has used community participation, by either:
    • survey
    • discussion with local Parks Department management.
  • Explain how to promote community involvement in park development in a way which will optimise the chance of success.
  • Determine a procedure to involve a community in the development of a park/playground facility, on a site visited by you.


There are many different ways of classifying playgrounds, and below is just one. The following classification will have many areas of overlap; but it's a useful way of seeing the diversity of options that you may learn about in this course.

Parts of each of these types of playground can be seen in each other; never the less, this classification may help us better understand the alternatives open to us.

Here the playground is essentially a structure, or piece of equipment which offers some play possibility. Like smaller children's toys, there are good items of playground equipment, and poor. Like smaller toys their value is perhaps best judged on:‑

  • the variety of play possibilities offered
  • the safety of the item
  • the quality of workmanship (is it solid?)

Playgrounds of this type are achieved one of two ways, both with advantages and disadvantages:‑

  1. Purchasing prefabricated equipment‑workmanship is usually excellent, safety is normally good, variety of play possibility is sometimes limited, cost is usually high.
  2. Building from recycled materials‑workmanship, safety, and play possibilities can vary enormously depending usually on who has been involved with it's building. Cost however, is usually relatively low.

The emphasis here is on creating an environment which is conducive to play. This might or might not include equipment.  It might simply be trees, surfacing materials and contour variations.

To develop this type of area well you need a very good understanding of both the nature of play as well as environmental design and construction.

This is an environment to encourage play with places to hide, hidden corners to explore, things to climb, and shade for protection.

The most important thing in this type of playground is the involvement of the community. The success or failure of this type of playground is dependent on the attitude which the community holds far more than on the physical nature of what has been built.

Free play is the essence of this type of playground.
Here the child is in charge of their own environment and activity.
They can change their environment as they wish; dig a hole, build a cubby etc.

Many things influence and restrict the type of playground which can/should be provided in any place. Some are:

  • How frequently is it used by the same children?
  • What is the age of the users?
  • Is it supervised or not?
  • What other facilities are existing in the area?
  • What resources are available? (money, expertise, land etc.).


Children’s play is actually quite serious. In fact, it is perhaps the most important way that children learn.

If play is constructive and full of variety, children will learn more and faster, so the best play equipment is that which supports and encourages a wide variety of different activities.

The Role of Play
Babies and young children play beside each other, rather than with each other. Early play helps children develop better control over their movements, and raises awareness and understanding of their physical surroundings.

As a toddler masters the physical world, their attention gradually turns to more intangible things and by the age of five, most children are more interested in interacting with other children. Through interactive play, they develop communication and social skills.

A baby will often respond to things that happen without their physical input (e.g. noise from a music box or a mobile hanging over the cradle). Try installing mobiles, wind chimes or sculptures with moving parts in your garden to stimulate them.

A toddler likes variety. They tend to play in different places, with different stimuli.

Preschool children really like to get involved. They like to manipulate their environment, to build things, or change things around. While a two-year-old may be enthralled by small building blocks, an older child will want to make bigger and more significant changes to their environment (e.g. doors or windows that open and close or sand that can be shaped into any form).

Children over the age of five need a greater physical challenge and need things they can do in pairs or groups. If something is not meant to be used by several children they will very often find a way to manipulate it for use by more than one at a time e.g. a slide meant for one child is likely to be used by several children sliding down together.

What to Look For in Play Equipment for Preschool Children

  • Different textured surfaces (e.g. rough and smooth).
  • Variety of materials (e.g. rubber, wood, plastic, metal).
  • A variety of different play spots – inside a cubby, in front of the cubby and behind the cubby all feel like different places to the child.
  • Things that can be moved.
  • Things that encourage the greatest variety of movements in the child. If they can climb it - it is good, but if they can climb, slide and swing, it is much better.

What to Look For in Play Equipment for School Aged Children

  • Their bodies are physically bigger, so the equipment needs to be sturdier and bigger.
  • Their minds are more complex and informed, so if the equipment isn’t more challenging and flexible, they will probably get bored and simply not use it.
  • Consider how it enhances social play – provide private places where children can sit, talk, or play pretend games (role-play) together.

Play equipment should be seen as only one component in creating a total play environment. Choose equipment with an awareness of how it is going to fit into and enhance the area you are trying to create.


  • Above all, there must be a soft surface below anything which a child can fall from. (Note: A fall of just a metre onto concrete or hard earth can result in a bone fracture).
  • Check for and avoid sharp edges and protruding objects that could catch clothing or be tripped on
  • Attend to excessively slippery surfaces.
  • Make sure the dimensions are in scale to the size of the child who will use the equipment. If a small child needs to reach too far to grab something, they are more likely to slip and fall.
  • The parent should be able to see/supervise the child – ideally without the child realising they are being observed. This is particularly important for preschool children but older children can be afforded more hiding places.

Recommended Play Surfaces

  • Suitable surfaces include mulches composed of bark or wood shavings (at least 20cm thick).
  • Lawn should be thick, dense and cut long (poor quality grass cut very short can be almost as bad as bare earth).
  • Rubber tiles or matting are ideal where practicable (safety tiles can be purchased from play equipment companies and fixed to hard surfaces like concrete).


A safe, stimulating back garden will provide children with hours of enjoyment and, just as importantly, give you peace of mind.

A childproof garden has the following features:

  • Safety fencing with secured gates.
  • Soft, clean playing surfaces - a vigorous, thick and well-mown lawn is ideal. Keep the lawn free of weeds, sticks, prickly seed pods and other debris.
  • Paths – constructed from smooth non-slip materials e.g. brick pavers.
  • Garden bed and path edges - avoid sharp, protruding edges or edges that may be a tripping hazard. 
  • Shade – from verandas, shade wings, portable sun shelters, trees.
  • Play area within sight of the house (for young children).
  • Lockable garden shed - place chemicals, sharp tools and spray equipment on high shelves out of children's reach. Do not store chemicals or oils in old soft drink or juice containers.

Designing the Garden for Children
The key to designing a garden for children is to incorporate safety features such as childproof fencing, shady play areas and non-slip surfaces, alongside other features that will engage their attention and keep them out of mischief.

1) Lawns
Leave as large an area as possible for lawns.  There is nothing that beats a lawn as an area where an overactive child can burn off excess energy.  In the early years, it may even be worthwhile compromising on garden beds in favour of lawns.

2) Separate Play Area
Keeping the children's play area separate from the adult areas will minimise conflicts. Depending on the child’s age, the area could include play equipment, pet cages (for guinea pigs, birds, etc), a cubby, and their own garden bed. Ideally their area should include at least one medium to large tree for climbing, shade, or constructing a tree house.  Make sure you are always present when young children are climbing.

3) Water Safety
Poolside fencing is essential. Even if your children can swim, a fence is necessary to protect the children of neighbours and visitors. A steel fence with a childproof gate is the safest choice – check your council regulations.

Small wading pools must be emptied immediately after use. Don’t leave them lying around – they could fill with rainwater and attract the attention of toddlers.

Garden ponds should be covered with wire mesh until children can be trusted with water. The mesh can be set at just below the water line so that it doesn’t look too obtrusive. Alternatively, fill the pond with attractive pebbles until the children are older.

Plants to Avoid

  • Poisonous plants - e.g. Caladium, Dieffenbachia, Castor Oil Plant, Datura, Oleander, Poinsettia, Kangaroo Berry (Solanums) and Hellebores.
  • Plants that cause allergic reactions - e.g. Grevillea, Rhus, Solanum sp.
  • Plants with sharp or prickly, thorny leaves, seeds, stems or fruit - e.g. Agave, Pampas Grass, Pyracantha, Mahonia, and Roses.



1) Sand Pit
This should have sturdy but smooth edges. A secure cover will keep the rain out and prevent leaves, sticks, etc from blowing in. It also prevents animals from contaminating the sand.

Portable plastic sandpits are inexpensive and easy to clean. They can also be used as paddle pools in warmer weather. A home-made sandpit has the advantage that you can build it to any size or shape - a large pit will allow two or more children to play together safely, using larger toys. Another bonus is that timber edges can be used as seating.

2) Cubbies or Wendy Houses
Choose or build a well-constructed, well-finished cubby house. Don’t make it too small or dark, otherwise it won’t get much use. A weatherproof cubby with a clean, dry floor will also encourage use.

3) Swings and Climbing Frames
Of all the play areas in the backyard, swing sets and climbing frames are the most likely source of accidents, so choose sturdy, safe equipment and soft surfacing to minimise the risks.

A set bought from a reputable toy or hardware shop will most likely conform with safety regulations. If you build your own swing or purchase a timber frame make sure the edges are rounded and smooth, and that all moving parts are securely attached. Concrete footings may be needed to secure the set in soft ground.

Check the equipment at least once a month to make sure it is in safe working order:

  • Nuts and bolts may need tightening.
  • Plastic components may become brittle or cracked and may need replacing.
  • Check for splinters on timber.
  • Check for corrosion, cracking or distortion on metal components.
  • Replace frayed ropes immediately.

Surfaces for Play Equipment
Never place the equipment on paving or asphalt. Soft lawn, fine sand or rubber playground matting are ideal surfaces. If loose fill materials such as sand or bark chips are used, rake and replace them as needed to prevent compaction and dispersion.



  • People who plan, design or build playgrounds - landscapers, engineers, architects, construction workers, etc
  • People who manage the use or maintenance of playgrounds safety officers and parks staff to teachers, playleaders and child care staff
  • People who manufacture or sell play equipment
  • Parents, teachers, developmental psychologists, play therapists, politicians or anyone else concerned with play provision
  • Play consultants, researchers, academics, therapists - anyone with a passion and appreciation of play and it's significance to mankind




Principal of ACS Distance Education, John Mason, is fellow of the CIH.
Principal of ACS Distance Education, John Mason, is fellow of the CIH.
Member of Study Gold Coast Education Network.
Member of Study Gold Coast Education Network.
ACS Global Partner - Affiliated with colleges in seven countries around the world.
ACS Global Partner - Affiliated with colleges in seven countries around the world.

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Course Contributors

The following academics were involved in the development and/or updating of this course.

Rosemary Davies (Horticulturist)

Leading horticultural expert in Australia.
Rosemary trained in Horticultural Applied Science at Melbourne University. Initially she worked with Agriculture Victoria as an extension officer, taught horticulture students, worked on radio with ABC radio (clocking up over 24 years as a presenter of garden talkback programs, initially the only woman presenter on gardening in Victoria) and she simultaneously developed a career as a writer.
She then studied Education and Training, teaching TAFE apprentices and developing curriculum for TAFE, before taking up an offer as a full time columnist with the Herald and Weekly Times and its magazine department after a number of years as columnist with the Age. She has worked for a number of companies in writing and publications, PR community education and management and has led several tours to Europe.
In 1999 Rosemary was BPW Bendigo Business Woman of the Year and is one of the founders and the Patron, of the Friends of the Bendigo Botanic gardens. She has completed her 6th book this year and is working on concepts for several others.
Rosemary has a B Ed, BSc Hort, Dip Advertising & Marketing

Adriana Fraser (Horticulturist)

Over 30 years working in horticulture, as a gardener, propagator, landscape designer
, teacher and consultant. Adriana has spent much of her life living on large properties, developing and maintaining her own gardens, and living a semi self sufficient lifestyle. She has decades of practical experience growing her own fruit, vegetables and herbs, and making her own preserves. She is well connected with horticulture professionals across Australia, and amongst other things, for a period, looked after Australia's national collection of Thymus. Advanced Diploma in Horticulture, Advanced Certificate in Horticulture.

John Mason

Writer, Manager, Teacher and Businessman with over 40 years interenational experience covering Education, Publishing, Leisure Management, Education, and Horticulture. He has extensive experience both as a public servant, and as a small business owner.
John is a well respected member of many professional associations, and author of over seventy books and of over two thousand magazine articles.

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