What makes a good playground?

Dot writes: they’re putting in a new playground at Dun Laoghaire, as part of a re-landscaping of the seafront near the DART station mostly directed at providing chic pavement seating areas for the cafes near the yacht club. I’ve been cycling past this playground all summer and thinking it will be ready just after we move to the opposite side of Dublin. As our moving date has receded and receded (this is not the post to discuss that; suffice it to say I’m not sure I know enough swearwords) those responsible for the playground have ensured that it has stayed not-quite-ready, presumably in a polite effort not to prove me wrong. I wouldn’t mind being wrong, though. It looks like quite a jolly playground. It’s fairly small but the design is appealing: two blocks of play equipment so shaped that together they look like the prow and stern of a sailing ship, with a mast in the middle.

The proof, however, will be in the playing. We have quite a large repertoire of playgrounds, a couple in walking distance plus some others we drive to. The favourite, or at least the one Hugh regularly asks to go to when given a choice, is the ‘red playground’. This is the one near Booterstown DART station, which from a parent’s point of view is most notable for being the furthest away of all our regular playgrounds and without free parking. This morning, when I discovered that there was also a brand new no-right-turn sign forcing me to do a confusing loop to get back to the carpark, I was trying to work out what makes the red playground so attractive.

1. It’s a treat: we don’t go there that often.
2. When we do go, it’s a weekend and there are lots of other children, among whom there are always some boys of about the right age ready to play pirates with Hugh.
3. It is full of attractive bright colours (mostly red), as a result of being pretty new.
4. There’s lots of equipment and my boys like almost all of it.

The equipment at the red playground consists of swings, little roundabouts and a see-saw, plus three blocks of climbing frame/slides; the climbing frames all have steps up so they’re quite easy to get onto, but the biggest one also has a curved ladder, monkey bars, a net and a mini-climbing wall, while the smallest is in the shape of a boat, so there are challenges for the bigger children and the designers have suggested directions for imaginative play. But, given that Frank (who isn’t two yet) managed both the curved ladder and the net this morning, I do wonder how long this playground will stay difficult enough to retain my boys’ interest. The largest playgrounds, such as those in Cabinteely Park and Marley Park, have huge towering rope nets like the creations of some monstrous spider. At the moment these are no good to Hugh or Frank, but one day maybe ascending to their dizzy summits will be the only thing between an eight-year-old and helpless ennui. On the other hand, it is the older children who are more interested in the imaginative dimension. The size of the slides on the boat in the red playground makes it clear it’s aimed at the very tiniest tots, but it’s the children of three and up who want to play boat.

So, what makes a good playground? This varies according to the age of the children, of course: there has to be enough to do, and there has to be enough of the right level of difficulty – not too hard, not too easy – for whatever age your children happen to be. But there are some features that seem to me to be generally important:

1. It has to be well-maintained without broken or missing equipment. This seems very obvious but it’s worth mentioning because one does encounter exceptions, and it’s incredibly frustrating to encounter roped-off swings or roundabouts that don’t turn.

2. Every playground worth its salt should have at least two, and preferably three or more, toddler swings, by which I mean the swings with a restraining bar all round the child’s waist. The tiniest children can’t really use anything else, so there are always queues for the toddler swings.

3. It has to have a good surface underneath. I’m not just talking about a safe surface, but one that doesn’t insert itself painfully through the holes in crocs or demand to be chucked around. Woodchips should be soft, gravel is awful, and one of those slightly sprung mat surfaces is very much the best.

4. Any climbing frame should either be easy to get on and off in at least two places or virtually inaccessible. It’s no good having a frame that small children can climb onto but not exit, but it’s surprising how often you meet them. I also hate it when you get a circuit climbing frame that my kids can only get halfway round. The hardest bit should be the start.

5. The gate should be closed, and children under about 5 should not be able to open it. This is REALLY IMPORTANT. Unfortunately the red playground is not quite up to scratch in this aspect. When we were there a few weeks ago Frank escaped and ran off to join some American footballers who were practising in the park just by us; as there’s a busy road just beyond this was alarming, though I was proud to hear the footballers commenting on Frank’s impressive turn of speed.

6. There should be plenty of benches for tired parents to sit on, just in case we get the chance.

I’m not sure how important I think it that there should be equipment aimed more at imaginative than athletic play. At one time I considered this was a waste of space except in very big playgrounds: my position was that you can be imaginative on a climbing frame, but it’s harder to be athletic on a stationary wooden train. However, Hugh can be athletic on anything. My position now is that every playground should at the very least have a little house in it (underneath the climbing frame is fine). This comes in useful when it rains too.


3 thoughts on “What makes a good playground?

  1. mairij

    Dot, I only wish the parks and reserves managers of Hamilton and Wanganui would read your blog. It’s an excellent analysis. The Dublin playgrounds are an awesome contrast to the dull, boring but totally safe playgrounds we have here. Many thanks for your observations.

  2. There was an awesome playground at the local school in my university town. We used to go play there on weekend evenings, usually with a couple of drinks in us.

    We called it the “playground of death.”

    It had a zipline, and this crazy fake-log-on-a-pole that spun, and the goal was to try and walk in place on it while it spun around, like someone on a rolling barrel in a cartoon. If you fell, the fall was a good three feet. There were these chains that dangled off of metal poles, and you were to grab the chain and run around the pole in circles until you got enough momentum, and then just lift up your feet and let the chain whip you around. There was no horizontal handhold, just a slick rubber coating on part of the chain.

    SO dangerous. I can’t believe they let children play there!

    But so much fun.

    You don’t find playground like that many places nowadays *sigh*

    1. kenanddot

      That does sound like an amazing playground.

      Some of the bigger playgrounds here have assault-course sections, with spinning logs and things, for the bigger children, though not usually high off the ground. I remember what I particularly loved when I was eight or so was sky-walk type courses, with rope bridges and tree-houses (though I was a wuss and not really into anything truly physically challenging: I just thought it was fun to be up high). Hugh already loves the flying fox (which is possibly what you mean by a zipline?). A frisson of danger is all to the good, I think. So long as it’s not concrete underneath.

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