A Tale Of Two Playgrounds

Over the years, observing my own children and reading books and articles about play has led to some new ideas. Play is what children do when their time is not being organized by adults. It is essential for children’s development.

It is not a time when care-giving is absent. However, it is a time when children control and manipulate their world into imagined environments. They set their own agendas and make up the roles. So the design of a playground should foster independent activity.

Two playgrounds in St. Louis, Mo., were designed specifically for child-care centers. One, for the University City Children’s Center (UCCC), is for children ages 2 through 5. The other, for the Jewish Community Center (JCC), includes an area for infants and toddlers as well. UCCC’s has been in operation for a year, and the JCC’s will be built in the near future.

Some of the design principles can be applied to any playground. Here are a few helpful concepts.

The Design Process

Design is most effective with the direct participation of clients who know their organizations and have an interest in the outcome. In the case of UCCC, the center’s director, Steve Zwolak--known to the kids as Mr. Z--worked closely with Team Four Architects from conceptual design through construction. At the JCC, Dr. Matt Wever, the center’s Senior Director of Facilities, and a committee of the child-care center’s staff worked with designers.

Nurture Nature

Nature is the background for human habitation. If children are to understand this, and to relate to environmental challenges, we need to let them experience it. That experience includes the way plant materials change across the seasons, how they are infinitely varied, how they feel, and how they smell. A playground full of trees and shrubs will be calming, fascinating and beautiful. Let nature be the context for play.

Spontaneity And Abstraction

Spontaneous invention and change make for true play and sound child development. They are supported by a reasonable level of abstraction and the availability of raw materials and loose parts. A child’s creativity and invention are limited by a single object in the form of a car or a train, for example.

Play structures should be abstract. Mounds, bridges, a slide down an existing hill and a climbing pyramid allow imaginations to work. Perhaps the structures will be given pet names by the children. These play functions and identities probably will change frequently.

Sensory Overload

Often playgrounds are overbuilt with equipment, so they feel overcrowded and overactive. Typically they are visually chaotic and overstimulating for children. Chaos diminishes the learning process, so projects should be designed to reduce it. Provide plenty of unassigned space, and let children figure out how to use it.


Playgrounds enable children to grow holistically: physically, socially and emotionally. Complexity can be good, but we believe in depth of experience, not a jumble of toy-like items. Playgrounds should be designed to “sprawl” a bit, using well-thought out areas, equipment and materials. Children, like adults, need “resting spaces,” a layering of spaces created by trellises, low walls, changes in level and plants.


Spatial complexity and a sense of transition have psychological and functional benefits. These relate to a building’s interface with the playground. At UCCC, we designed a trellis along the west side of the building as a transition from classrooms to playground. The separation insulates the classrooms and allows some thinking, selection or adjustment time for the children. Vines on the trellis are the first natural element encountered.

Because St. Louis summer heat can be unbearable, a misting system from the trellis provides a cool area for the children to enjoy and refresh themselves. All this, and the trellis provide shading on the sunny west side of the building for both play and for the classroom windows.

At the JCC, several fabric sails will shade the infant/toddler area. A sukkah-like structure will provide for the older children, which reinforces the religious goals of the center. Most important is the use of the largest trees that can be reasonably transplanted.

Small Pieces

A playground’s design--using landscaping and natural materials to provide inherent physical challenges--enables children to experience success. Added materials, such as boards, blocks, wooden boxes, small planks and other materials, encourage children to organize their environment and to develop their skills. The open-ended nature of these pieces allows a teacher and children to work together to incorporate the content of a curriculum into a playground’s environment.

A Child’s View Of The World

Playgrounds divided into smaller areas allow several environments to exist together. Since a child’s world is closer to the ground than an adult’s, low walls with niches for placing objects become the raw materials of the imaginary worlds that children create. Their lack of a specific identity will be their strength, since one day a niche in the wall will be a place to hide a treasure, and another day a window into what may be happening next door.

We hope that our playgrounds will all be stimulating, safe and secure environments, to enable children to play in a natural landscape. And just like UCCC’s and JCC’s playgrounds, a play area should be designed to be a special child-centered world.

William Albinson, AIA, is a Principal of Team Four Architects of St. Louis, Mo. Team Four's practice includes nonprofit and education organizations. The firm has designed a number of unique play environments for public and nonprofit clients. He can be reached via e-mail at albinson@teamfourstl.com.