Calling all kids and kids-at-heart
February 24, 2011 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Help source photographs and ideas for the design of a maximally creative schoolyard play space for grades K-8.

My daughter's public charter school, housed in a converted bowling alley with a small asphalt play area, has just received a KaBoom! grant to design and install a "dream playground." We're very excited! The KaBoom! process requires kid + parent participation in every aspect of the design and build process.

That's where the hive mind comes in. I'd love to take a bunch of ideas and images with me to our next meeting to inspire the planning team beyond the cookie cutter "fabricated playground" model.

While there is nothing wrong with this type of model, and I understand the value of having equipment that maximizes physical activity, I'd also like the playground to maximize opportunities for learning (e.g. butterfly gardens to attract insects), contemplative spaces (e.g. sitting walls and kid-sized nooks for reading or alone time), and especially for creative play. I love the "adventure playgrounds," concept, and Christopher Alexander's approach to designing spaces for kids (as summarized here).

Help me generate ideas for, and find images of, absolutely amazing creative, educational, inspirational and physically stimulating play spaces suitable for daily use by 250 kids in grades K-8!

Please know that we're somewhat limited in that we cannot incorporate water features, we have a very small (200 x 100 ft sq) space to work with, merry-go-rounds are considered too dangerous, and the school's composting operation needs to fit into the mix. Thanks!
posted by tidecat to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I went to a small K-12 school for the entirety of my K-12 years. The most popular structure on our playground when I was four was still the most popular structure when I graduated.

It was basically just a big, wooden platform (probably no more than about 8'x8') raised about 4 feet off the ground. It had a metal gate going most of the way around it so you didn't fall off, and had a number of ways to get in (monkey bars leading up to one side, a fireman's escape pole, and a ladder--I don't recall there being a slide, but there also may have been a slide). It also had a couple of steering wheels. There was also plenty of space to play in the shade underneath it. I think some of the parents got together and made it a few years before I started at the school (and unfortunately I can't find any pictures on google that look similar).

That thing was used for everything. It was a boat. It was a car. It was a castle. It was a jail for keeping bad guys. It was our sewer lair when we played Ninja Turtles when I was 4. It was awesome. The multiple points of entry to the platform made it great for kids to choose sides and invade each other.

Newer pieces got added to the playground as the years went on, like pre-fab forts and stuff, but nothing was ever as popular as that thing. I think the fact that it wasn't designed to be anything was key. It didn't really look like anything in particular, so it took on the shape of whatever the kid wanted to play on.

You should try to find something like that.
posted by phunniemee at 11:45 AM on February 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm having a hard time finding a good picture of frog park, but it has lots of secret places, various styles of climbing equipment, slides, swings, etc. It's a good example of using vertical space. I'm also a fan of the Junk boat.

I feel very lucky to have a nearby adventure playground, but I can't imagine that model working as a school playground.
posted by serazin at 11:47 AM on February 24, 2011

Best answer: I feel obligated to note that it would be utterly impossible for my district to get an "adventure playground" as per your links insured. We can't even get new swing installations insured at a reasonable price these days.

We created a backyard playspace with super-tall native grasses and other locally native prairie plants that a) are taller than all but the tall teenaged boys by late summer; b) draw tons of native birds, butterflies, bugs, and ground-dwelling small mammals; c) are environmentally friendly and require little care. It's an "island" of grasses surrounded by a wide-ish grass path (2-3 feet), and through it are smaller meandering footpaths here and there. My theory was, when you were a kid, did you play on the lawn or did you spend all your time exploring in the bushes on adventures? Bushes, totally. So grass taller than your head is AWESOME. We had some proof-of-concept last summer when we hosted a party that had around 20 kids of varying ages, and they spend the entire time racing circles around the grass island, jumping out at each other from the in-and-out bumps in the island perimeter, bushwacking through the grass, pointing out the monarch butterflies, etc. Around this center island, on the other side of the grass path, there's a traditional swingset in one corner, a hammock in the shade in another, compost in the third, and edible landscaping lining the sunny fence from the third to the fourth, where there's a little alcove we'll probably put a bench in one day.

I think some of the keys were the lack of visibility due to the tall grasses, allowing exploration and hiding and making the space feel much larger than it is. Also the "pitstops" around the perimeter, with the swingset and the hammock in particular, made for home bases the kids retreated to and explored from.

Something I see that's very popular is small grassy berms arranged as reading/chatting/sunning areas, where kids who like to SIT at recess can do so, and they can also serve as outdoor classroom areas. The berms can define the space without overwhelming it or insisting it only be used for X.

Stepping stones in grassy areas are also very popular. Jumping contests, grass becomes rivers and hot lava, can use them to do the "get everyone across the river" game, etc. Kids like stepping stones. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:32 PM on February 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

The second playground in your adventure playgrounds link looks like it was built by this company. I worked for them about 20 years ago and got to build some awesome playgrounds with volunteers in a variety of places.
posted by mareli at 1:48 PM on February 24, 2011

Don't forget to make it accessible! The Playground for All Children in Corona, Queens, NYC, is amazing (or at least it was last time I was there, several years ago). It's made to be enjoyed by kids with disabilities and kids without. Unfortunately I can't find much about it on the Web, but here are some sites with photos and descriptions:

Someone on Flickr
Someone else
The Facebook group Everybody Swings!, which works on making playgrounds in Portland, OR accessible -- the woman behind it is a great organizer and perhaps could give you some tips
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:58 PM on February 24, 2011

When I was in kindergarten, I got to "help" design this playground at my school. They gave all students a template of the space, and we each got to draw what we wanted most on it. The coolest parts were the giant slide and the sliding rope swing. I also really loved the net of tires that you can see in the left of some of the pictures- it was a blast to climb on. Have fun, and congrats on your grant!
posted by quiet coyote at 6:01 PM on February 24, 2011

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