Starting a Playground
Play is essential to the healthy development of children.
But gardens are getting smaller, roads are getting busier and children seem to spend increasingly more time on computer and video games – they need to get out and play – but where can they play?
There are many ways of providing play opportunities for children but deciding on the best way for your own community needs careful consideration.
The following points need to be considered.
- Do you need a playground?
- Background to play
- Play policy
- Age and ability
- Choosing the Site
- Providing Quality Play
Dealing with each of these points, we have provided a summary of key issues and information in the drop-down sections below.
While this is in no way a definitive outline, we hope this will be a helpful guide:
Do you need a playground?
Just because the children need somewhere to play, doesn’t mean that a playground is the best or only solution for your community. Research shows that for children, a playground is their base for play, somewhere from which to safely explore their neighbourhood – not somewhere to spend hours of play.
Playgrounds are part of a community’s provision of play for children, they are not the only answer. Why not make your whole environment child friendly, so that children can play more safely everywhere?
Measures like traffic calming, improved footpaths and road crossings will help not just children but all pedestrians, young and old.
Look at the ‘Home Zones’ idea at www.homezones.org – and Galway Healthy Cities – and at creating ‘child friendly towns’ www.childfriendlycities.org.
A network of play spaces, from landscaped green spaces in housing areas, through neighborhood parks with some play equipment to larger Town Parks with more facilities is ideal, linked by footpaths and cycle ways so that children can travel safely through their neighbourhood.
Landscape improvements enable children to play in the natural environment.
The RoSPA booklet, ‘Growing Spaces for Play’ gives lots of ideas. Natural play areas are cheaper to provide than fixed equipment sites.
Children enjoy playing on playground equipment, but access to play opportunities within their own home environment gives significant opportunities for social, physical, imaginative and creative play.
Do you want a playground or play scheme that is open all year or just in the summer holidays? If it is just in the holiday time then perhaps consider instead developing or improving the holiday play schemes available to local children?
For advice on developing holiday or year round play schemes see the section on Play Schemes.
The Background to Play
A play area will only be used if it provides a more attractive play environment than other open spaces. Research has identified key points about how children play. The success of any play project depends on using that knowledge.
Children use their whole environment for play – streets, waste land, public open space, anywhere accessible.
Children play mostly on the street even when playgrounds are provided.
Independent journeys to and from friends are important in developing social relationships.
Concern with ‘stranger danger’ and increased traffic has led to a significant decrease in children’s freedom to move and travel independently.
Children gain significant play value from the natural environment, e.g. slopes, trees, bushes, sand, long grass and water. Natural features such as these should be retained or provided in play facilities.
Vandalism can be reduced by informal supervision, the provision of purpose built seats and shelters and facilities for older children and young teens, such as basketball and 5 -a -side pitches.
Involve the community, especially children, in the design and siting of play facilities
So, the children need somewhere to play? The first response is to provide a playground. However, a playground is just one place where children play. You could identify where and how children play, as well as what might be needed to provide a range of play opportunities, including playgrounds. This means putting children’s play needs onto the local planning agenda, such as Local Area Plans.
Talk to the local authority and to your Councillors about developing a play policy. A play policy should be central to any organisation providing a play service. It will help to ensure that those involved have a common understanding of what they are doing and why.
Some local authorities will take a playground over for insurance and maintenance once it has been built by a community. Other local authorities leave these responsibilities to the community.
Under the National Play Policy, each local authority has a local play policy for providing play and recreation facilities and a designated official to promote them, who is usually on the Local Authority Play and Recreation Officer’s Network.
Some of the issue to consider in a play policy, for playgrounds or holiday play schemes may include:
• Statements of Intent
• Quality standards
• Accessibility – disabled, special needs
• ‘Best Play’ indicators
• Consultation – community, parents, children
• Training – staff and community
• Range of play opportunities
• Partnership – statutory, voluntary sectors
• Environmental play
• Fixed equipment playgrounds – Standards (ISEN 1176 & 1177), design, installation, age segregation, maintenance schedules, keeping written records, procedures, staff responsibilities, post-installation and independent annual inspections.
Developing a community playground can be a long process. Is there a committed group to work on it?
People can soon lose interest in the project as their children grow older and the playground remains a dream. To develop an effective playground project a community group needs to be properly organised.
This commitment may not end when the playground is built as insurance, maintenance and cleanliness may need on-going work.
Age and Ability
What age group will the playground cater for? Equipment is specifically designed for children in key age groups. Just because you choose to provide for one age group, doesn’t mean that children older or younger will not also use the equipment. Play equipment for young children should be separated from that for older children.
Older children and teenagers need safe places to ‘hang out’ and socialise, places to play ball games and to skateboard. If vandalism may be an issue, then provide for this age group before putting in play facilities for younger children. See Youth Shelters and Sports Systems, in the Library section.
Playgrounds and play equipment should be accessible and usable for children and their carers of all abilities. You can download the Sugradh report on the play provision for children with disabilities, from the Publications section of this website.
Accessibility under the Disability Act, 2005, means providing a firm surface on paths to the playground, gates wide enough for wheelchair access and safer surfaces around equipment. Guidance may be obtained through the RoSPA booklets, ‘Developing the Children’s Playground’, ‘Playgrounds for Children with Special Needs’ and ‘Basic Guidelines for Wheeled Sports Equipment on Children’s Play Areas’.
The National Disability Authority “Guidelines for Access Auditing of the Built Environment” are at The National Disability Authority. The main purpose of an access audit report is to allow the recipient to:
(a) create a prioritised implementation plan to address any problems, and
(b) inform customers about accessibility features and potential barriers.
For example, some parents might be unaware that their local playground has multi-sensory facilities that their child would enjoy, even if that child were unable to use the slides.
The NDA best-practice publication, “Building for Everyone: a ‘Universal Design’ approach”, is at The Centre for Excellence in Universal Design. Section 7.14.16, “Playgrounds, play structures and equipment”, is Downloadable here – Building for Everyone: A Universal Design Approach.
A handy way to understand the NDA approach to accessibility in less than 20 minutes – is with this Video !
In terms of definitions, the Equality Authority’s “Guide to the Equal Status Acts” Downloadable here Equal Status Rights Explained – this defines “disability”, “reasonable accommodation”, and “nominal cost”.
A playground should be designed to meet the needs of the children –
so why not ask them?
“What do you want in the playground?” –
“How and what do you play?
What do you want the playground to feel like?
Where do children play at the moment?
Can these places be better protected or developed for play?
Children can be involved in producing model or drawings of the type of play area they would like to have.
Taking children to other playgrounds and observing what they play on is also a good idea. It will also give you an idea as to how that make of equipment is standing up to vandalism, wear and tear, decay etc.
Ref. ISPCC Document on consultation –
Contact Tel: 01 6767960 Fax 01 6789012 –
Choosing the Site
Do you have a site? If not then talk to the local authority – the best people to talk to are the Play Development Officer, Area Engineer, or your Council member.
In choosing a site for a play area, avoid it being out of sight behind houses or shops. Vandalism will be higher where there is no informal supervision from passers-by. The site should not be outside of town where it will be difficult for children to get to on their own and where there will be little informal supervision.
Playgrounds within an enclosed park, which is locked after dark, are subject to less vandalism than if they are sited in unenclosed open spaces.
Don’t forget to involve the rest of the community in making decisions about the placement of playgrounds and other environmental improvements. Sometimes playgrounds provided by local authorities have had to be closed due to complaints from neighbours, so avoid siting a playground close to homes for the elderly.
A site for a play area should be in a well used area, along a pedestrian route to the shops or school, ideally where there is public lighting, and where there is access for maintenance and emergency vehicles. A site close to a community centre, preschool or youth club would also be suitable. Avoid a site where children will have to cross a main road to reach it.
Suitable open space may be difficult to find. Many playgrounds have been built on parish or GAA land.
Playgrounds close to homes provide informal supervision, are popular with parents and children, are easy for kids to get to, are safer, are used more often than isolated playgrounds in parks and reduce the risk of vandalism. Several small play areas with a few items of equipment in a landscaped area may be better value for the children than one expensive playground away from their homes.
Providing Quality Play
The following points are taken from work by Bob Hughes, who has done extensive research into children’s play and play work.
A rich play environment should provide opportunities for:
• A varied and interesting physical environment – changes in level, hiding places, trees and bushes, places to inspire the imagination.
• Challenge in relation to the physical environment – activities which test the limits of capabilities, rough and tumble, chase, games.
• Playing with the natural elements – earth, water, sand, fire, digging, flying kites.
• Movement – running, jumping, rolling, climbing, balancing – beams and ropes, soft mats, space, juggling.
• Manipulating natural and fabricated materials – materials for art, making and mending, building dens, making concoctions, using tools, sand, mud, access to bits and pieces.
• Stimulation of the five senses – music making, shouting, quiet places, colours and shapes, dark and bright places, cooking on a campfire, edible plants, nuts and berries.
• Experience change in the natural and built environment – experiencing the seasons through access to the outdoor environment (many play schemes in Scandinavia have the children outdoors for 75% of their time), opportunities to take part in building, demolishing, or transforming the environment.
• Social interactions – being able to choose whether and when to play alone or with others, to negotiate, co-operate, compete and resolve conflicts. Being able to interact with individuals and groups of different ages, abilities, interests, gender, ethnicity and culture.
• Playing with identity – dressing up, role play, performing, taking on different forms of responsibility.
• Experience a range of emotions – opportunities to be powerful/powerless, scared/confident, liked/disliked, in/out of control, brave/cowardly.
There is a great range of play equipment available. A list of playground suppliers is given in this website. The choice of metal or timber equipment will depend on local circumstances – urban or rural, expected vandalism, exposure and durability. The suppliers will also advise on the layout of the playground.
It is important to get a high play value from the items chosen, in other words how many play activities can the item support?
Research shows that the most popular play items, in order of popularity are:
Swings – different types, roundabouts, seesaws, slides, a hard surface for ball games and wheeled toys, and then multiplay structures with many things to do.
Play equipment, however, is the equivalent of furniture within a room. Think of the whole of the play space as providing imaginative and fun opportunities for play within a rich play environment with slopes, planting, long grass and trees and avoid ending up with a few pieces of play equipment in a fenced flat area of rubber surfacing and tarmac. When budgeting for a playground, sometimes half the costs can go into drainage and groundworks, fencing and surfacing, before one even considers the play equipment.
While the resources of local authorities have been cut back, there is still a demand for play areas from communities.
An alternative approach is to design for a more natural playground, with grass mounds, logs, boulders, willow tunnels, sand, water and a few pieces of fixed equipment with loose fill surfacing such as woodchips or sand.
A more natural play area has a very high play value, meets children’s needs for exposure to natural materials for fun and imagination, yet can still meet safety standards through a risk assessment and be a fraction of the cost of a conventional playground.
Access to natural features and materials is highly valued by children. Children love to explore and to experiment. Their favourite places are waste ground with natural vegetation. Research by Marc Armitage shows that 50-70% of local children will use such places, compared with only 6% on equipped playgrounds.
An excellent book, “We Like this Place”…Guidelines for Best Practice in the Design of Childcare Facilities, has been produced by the National Children’s Nurseries Association, Dublin, (now Early Childhood Ireland) and includes advice on both indoor and outdoor areas.
Early Childhood Ireland also publish “Nurture Through Nature – Promoting outdoor play for young children”, which is especially valuable for pre-schools. It also includes a checklist for evaluating your outdoor space and a risk assessment form.
The Irish Landscape Institute can provide a list of landscape architects, many of whom design play areas www.irishlandscapeinstitute.com
Accidents can never be totally prevented, but their incidence can be reduced by good design.
The Irish Play Safety Forum has shown that out of 5,500 incidents reported to a local authority over the last 20 years, 29 occurred in playgrounds and only 14 resulted in claims.
A ‘duty of care, as far as is reasonably practical’ which may reduce the likelihood of serious accidents and claims is shown when:
1. Equipment and surfacing meets ISEN 1176: 2008 Play Equipment and ISEN 1177: 2008 Impact Absorbing Surfacing, determined by product certification, a post-installation inspection and a risk assessment of the completed play area (required under Safety and Welfare at Work Regulations) and independent annual inspections. These inspections can be provided by the RoSPA playground inspector in Ireland.
2. The site is well maintained and staff have received certified training through the Register of Play Inspectors International (RPII) www.playinspectors.com, Annual playground inspectors must be registered with the RPII.
3. Records are kept of weekly and independent annual inspections.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) provides a wide range of fact sheets as well as FAQs on the safety aspects of playgrounds www.rospa.com.
The RoSPA inspector for Ireland can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See the RoSPA booklets,
‘Assessing Risk on Children’s Playgrounds’ and ‘Regular Inspections of Children’s Playgrounds’.
The ability of a child to assess risk is an essential part of child development. It is better for the child to learn how to do this in the relative safety of a playground than on the road or a building site. What we try to avoid are hazards to children. It is neither possible nor desirable to provide a risk free play area as the children will not use it. There should be as much play value as possible and only as much safety as is necessary.
For a more detailed assessment see the Irish Play Safety Statement in the Publications section.
The other relevant play equipment standards are:
Multi-Use Games Areas – EN 15312:2007 Free access Multi-sports equipment (Multi-Use Games Areas – combined football and basketball courts)
Skateparks – EN 14974:2006 Facilities for Users of Roller Sports Equipment
Indoor Play Areas – BS 8409:2002 Soft Indoor Play Areas – Code of Practice 9 (also Part 10 of EN 1176 applies)
Parkour – BS 10075:2013 Parkour Facilities
Adult Exercise Equipment – PAS 888. A new standard is being produced, EN 16630:2013 These adult items are not play equipment and ideally should not be sited near to a children’s play area.
There is always another approach, which is to let children get on with playing.
When one New Zealand school tossed its playground rules and let students risk injury, the results were surprising – View Article « Here »
Insurance premiums for playgrounds in Ireland reflect the ‘claims culture’ rather than any inherent risk with playgrounds. Community groups can often lobby for and raise funding for play areas, which are then taken over by the local authority for maintenance and insurance.
All local authorities are insured through the Irish Public Bodies Mutual Insurance Co. and playground insurance forms only a small part of their overall public liability insurance budget. The IPBM have told Sugradh that there are no insurance reasons why playgrounds should not be provided.
The IPBM insist that playgrounds insured by them are under the control and management of the local authority and weekly inspections of all equipment are carried out by suitably qualified staff.
Community groups can still be involved in opening and closing playgrounds, keeping them clean on a daily basis and reporting any problems to the Council. Some local authorities have closed playgrounds or failed to open playgrounds because of “insurance problems”. If you are told this, then see if there is an underlying reason. The insurance companies ask that the playgrounds meet recognised standards in terms of their construction and maintenance. It could well be the cost of meeting those requirements, which is preventing the local authority from providing a playground.
Supervised play areas, with trained playworkers, or play areas that are associated with a community centre where there is some overall supervision, are easier to insure than ‘stand alone’ equipment in an open space.
Regular maintenance and recorded inspections are required by insurance companies – and certainly, it does help to reduce the possibility of accidents and claims. Playgrounds should be checked at least once a week for general tidiness, wear and tear and vandalism.
Annual inspections by an independent outside body, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) are recommended under the relevant Irish Standard ISEN 1176:2008 Playground Equipment and are usually required by insurers. The annual playground inspector should be registered with the Register of Play Inspectors International (RPII).
The RPII also offers one day Routine Level courses on playground inspection for those who look after playgrounds on a daily or a weekly basis. The RPII Operational Level two day course is for middle management and involves both a written and a practical exam. These courses are certified and are valid for three years and can be provided by the RoSPA inspector in Ireland. The RoSPA inspector for Ireland can be contacted at email@example.com.
The RoSPA booklet “Regular Inspection of Playgrounds” provides checklists and forms for inspecting playgrounds.
Most playground equipment suppliers will provide training in how to care for the play items once it is built and they should provide a year long post-completion maintenance programme. They should at least provide maintenance instructions. You might also be able to negotiate a maintenance contract. If not, then ask for a ‘box of bits’, including nuts and bolts, bolt covers, the tool to tighten bolts, as spare set of swing chains etc.
A list of play equipment suppliers and specialist playground maintenance companies is included in the section Suppliers.
The Next Step
Find out as much as you can about playgrounds and children’s play. To do this talk to as many people as possible in the community, local authority and especially the children. Then do your homework, learn from other people’s experiences. Please use the information section of this site to find useful links and references to publications.
This information should enable you to produce an action plan for a playground or play scheme to present to your local authority.