Bring Storytelling To Life

By Brenda Iraola and Robert Nketia

Themed playgrounds not only challenge children to use their imaginations, but they also tell a story, educate, and engage visitors.


But they are not play spaces that can be “thrown together” in a hurry. Designers must research the appropriate theme for an area so it piques the community’s interest.

The Landscape Architecture Section of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, has taken the lead in creating new “imagination playgrounds” for residents.

Approximately 12 sites were selected for themed playgrounds throughout the county. With the help of local fifth and sixth graders, storylines were developed and concepts were drawn up for each of the sites, including the Berwyn Heights Indian Creek Playground.

When designing imagination-themed playgrounds, there are several factors to consider:

  • Site history and park-theme creation

  • Signage

  • Safety issues

  • Community participation

  • Environment and existing conditions.

Site History And Park-Theme Creation
It is important to consider the history of the site in the early stages of design. In speaking with the community about Indian Creek, the designers learned that Native American Indians inhabited the site many years ago. This prompted officials to pass on the original design and pursue a playground that reflected this significant finding.

Upon researching Native American Indian cultures, several classic symbols were woven into the design:

  • A North Pacific tribe totem pole

  • A Conoy tribe arrowhead

  • A Sioux tribe tipi

  • Badlands boulders

  • A thunderbird

  • An Algonquian tribe canoe

  • A Navaho tribe drum

  • A Powhatan tribe maize field (corn)

  • A dreamcatcher and beads

  • Buffalo hide paintings

  • A colorful rug design.

Gone are the days when designers build a structure just for its own sake; today, landscape architects design to deliver a message.

At the Indian Creek playground, age-appropriate signage is used to tell a story and educate children about the life of American Indians and the equipment they regularly used.

Signs like this one tell the story of the playground and bring the area's history to life.

One example of the signage is the Conoy Arrowhead:


"The Conoy Indian tribes in Maryland were hunting experts--they used bows and arrows for hunting and were very skilled. They became experts by practice; they would throw a spear into the air and then shoot an arrow afterwards to hit the spear before it fell to the ground. They hunted squirrels, turkeys, partridges, and wild animals."

Safety Issues
Safety is always a concern when designing custom parks, and it is up to the manufacturer to make the equipment safe.

For example, equipment must comply with the American Standard Testing Materials and Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Some items to watch for include rounding sharp edges, minimizing entrapment areas, omitting exposed bolts, etc. Fall zones and play equipment must be free of any foreign objects or elements that can cause injuries.

Indian Creek was designed as a “walk-to park” for the local community, but it became a popular playground and attracted visitors from miles away.

This created a problem because there was no parking near the playground. Therefore, cars were parking in random fashion, and some actually started to slide down the adjacent steep shoulders toward the playground equipment.

Guardrails are now being installed to keep the play area safe. This is just one item to consider when designing a play area.

Community Participation
Landscape architects design to satisfy the needs of people; however, the success of the project is dependent on community participation.

In order to succeed, a designer must meet several objectives:

  • Produce a design that the community needs

  • Meet the approved project budget

  • Stay within the construction schedule timeframe.

During the early stages of the Indian Creek project, both informal and formal meetings were held, providing the opportunity to listen to the community and hear its vision for the play area.

Drum up some fun with unique features!


In return, landscape architects were able to share several design concepts, such as a tipi play structure with tree stump and climbing ropes, a footbridge, and a custom swing set with Indian rug graphics (made from poured-in-place rubber surfacing). This created a lot of excitement among residents.

Meanwhile, formal meetings broadcast over the local cable channel were used to inform the larger community about the project.

Understanding how community participation affects the design, budget, and construction schedule is necessary. The designer must realize that the community requires certain elements to be included.

However, this can sometimes lead to the design exceeding the project budget or completion date. But the more satisfied the community is with the design, the more likely residents are to take ownership and thereby create a “community watch” over the playground that can discourage vandalism.

Environment And Existing Conditions
On-site factors are not to be ignored because they often determine the ultimate success of a project. Considering site conditions can help determine design amenities for a project.

For example, at Indian Creek it was possible to retain numerous large trees as a source of shade. Further, an arborist recommended removing several trees because their cores were rotten, which could create a potential safety hazard.

Another problem that was not apparent until construction was the use of the engineered wood fiber (EWF) near the base of the existing trees. The depth of the EWF mulch safety surface (12-inch compacted) would have suffocated the tree roots, so tree wells were added with 10 inches of large rocks with only 2 inches of EWF mulch.

Another possible problem was the linear drainage swale along the edge of the playground. Children liked to stack rocks over it so they could cross the stream to access the playground for a quick route, so a footbridge was added.

This bridge also serves as a link to connect the eastern and western portions of the area, increasing the play value of the space. The western portion was then designed to include a picnic area with seating for parents and children.

Brenda J. Iraola, ASLA, is the Landscape Architect Supervisor for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Reach her at (301) 699-2480, or

Robert Kwao Nketia, Jr., is a Landscape Architect intern for the commission. For more information, visit