Tips for Designing a Playground for All Ages
Playgrounds serve an essential purpose in our society. They provide kids with a safe space where they can have fun while developing physical, social, emotional, and cognitive skills that are crucial for healthy growth.
As kids develop, their needs change. We at Little Tikes Commercial design equipment specifically for each age group to accommodate these changes. These specifications are especially helpful when designing play spaces for settings that cater to one specific age group — for example, a preschool only needs playground equipment for children ages 2 to 5.
However, many settings, like elementary schools, places of worship, and daycares need to create playgrounds that suit the needs of children in more than one age group. When you’re creating a playground for kids of multiple age groups, you need to carefully consider which equipment you’re going to include in your design.
In this guide, we’ll discuss how to design a playground that appeals to kids of all ages, including the importance of selecting age-specific components.
The Importance of Age-Appropriate Playground Equipment
Selecting age-appropriate playground equipment is crucial for designing a playground all kids will love. Each age group approaches play in significantly different ways due to their differences in ability, mental development, and size, so it’s important to keep these differences in mind.
Kids need playground equipment that suits their mental and physical abilities in order to get the most use and enjoyment out of it — if a piece of equipment is too difficult to use or too big for a child, they may feel discouraged. Overly challenging equipment can also pose a risk to their safety, as they lack the physical capabilities necessary to navigate the equipment. Similarly, a playground that is too small or easy to master may bore them.
Playground Design Features to Consider
When creating playgrounds for children of multiple age ranges, it’s important to consider the type of movement that develops at each age and how that translates into play.
It’s also important to consider the aesthetic appeal of your playground and how your chosen features will fit into it. Sticking to a playground theme can help guide you toward accessories and features that will complete your play space.
Playgrounds for Infants
Infants and toddlers require equipment that enables full-body movement, like rolling, walking, crawling, and dancing.
Equipment should also be low to the ground and touch-friendly to make it usable for young kids and help reduce the risk of injury. Crawl tunnels, small slides, and ground-level activity panels are the best choices for kids in this range. Additionally, if space permits, you can create an infant-specific area separate from the rest of the playground.
Playgrounds for Preschoolers
Children usually progress through the following six stages of play from the time they’re a toddler to about age 5:
- Unoccupied play: Young children explore their surroundings seemingly at random. In this stage, they learn to manipulate objects and master self-control.
- Solitary play: Children play by themselves and learn independently. If other kids are around, they typically ignore them.
- Onlooker behavior: Around 2 years old, children begin to sit back and actively watch their peers play. Kids in this stage can sometimes appear lonely or scared to jump in, but onlooker behavior is a normal stage of development that allows kids to learn by watching.
- Parallel play: At this stage, kids play next to each other without interacting. For example, two children may draw on the same chalkboard but will not draw together.
- Associative play: From ages 3 to 4, children begin to take interest in their peers, though they may still stick to their own activities. Essentially, associative play is advanced parallel play.
- Cooperative play: Around 4 years old, kids usually begin actively engaging with their peers in play activities. This stage helps to teach children about the importance of following rules, taking turns, and cooperating.
Incorporating elements that cater to kids in each of these stages is crucial to building a truly age-inclusive playground. Placing these elements away from the rest of the playground can help keep small kids safe and at ease — stepping into the “big kids” area can be intimidating for younger kids. Providing a space that’s just for them helps to ensure their comfort and safety.
Playgrounds for Elementary Schoolers
Kids in elementary school — typically from the ages of 5 to 10 or 11 — engage in increasingly cooperative styles of play. A few examples include:
- Dramatic play: Kids take on specific roles and act them out. Dramatic play allows kids to explore their identities and surroundings in addition to learning important social skills like cooperation and communication.
- Competitive play: Children compete against each other in highly regulated settings, like sports and board games. Through competitive play, kids learn to follow rules, take turns, participate in a team, and deal with the reality of losing.
- Constructive play: Kids build structures by manipulating objects, which teaches them how things fit together. This style of play helps kids develop cognitive skills and curiosity.
Providing equipment that activates a child’s imagination, like interactive clubhouses and themed play panels, appeals to this age group’s preference for creativity.
Playgrounds for Middle Schoolers
Middle schoolers from ages 11 to 12 need even more of a mental and physical challenge than kids at the younger end of the age range.
To successfully target middle school kids, provide equipment with interesting twists and turns that force them to physically engage with the object. For example, rock walls, overhead climbing events, and high-thrill slides are great features for this age range.
Tips for Designing Playgrounds for All Ages
There are several different ways you can approach an all-ages playground project. If you have a large amount of space, you can choose to set up multiple play areas targeted at specific age groups. Or, you could choose to make one all-inclusive area that includes elements appropriate for all kids. The kind of playground you build depends on your space and budget and the people in your community.
Multiple Play Areas
Playground designs with multiple areas allow you to provide a separate space tailored to each age group, helping to reduce the risk of younger children getting hurt by playing on equipment too challenging for them.
You can link each age-specific area with a buffer area, like a picnic area or other site amenities. Some examples can include:
- Picnic tables
- A walking path
- Decorative fencing
- Water fountains
- Hand sanitizing stations
One more tip — make sure that play areas are always visible from these buffer areas so parents can keep an eye on their kids at all times.
Single Play Area
A playground with a single area for all ages is often the best choice for organizations with limited space or budget restrictions. However, it can be challenging to make the area accessible and exciting for kids of multiple age ranges.
You should give careful consideration to the components you choose, taking into account factors like a child’s size and ability level. Strike a balance between play components aimed at younger kids and those aimed at older kids. Since the 5 to 12 age range encompasses more children than the 2 to 5 range, you can opt for more equipment aimed at older kids.
Key elements for an age-inclusive play area include:
- A large upper deck children can access by climbing up or using a ramp.
- Lower decks with shorter fall heights.
- A variety of slides including ones appropriate for younger kids.
- Full visibility to enable adult supervision.
- Secluded areas for kids to rest when they get mentally or physically tired.
Providing a range of equipment gives kids the choice to play how they want to, but it also allows them to stay within their own ability level until they grow big and strong enough to move up.
Types of Playgrounds by Age
Since children play differently at each stage in their lives, it’s important to create age-specific playgrounds to cater to every child. Whether you’re creating one comprehensive structure or splitting your build into sections, understanding how children in each age group play can help you figure out what kind of equipment to use in your play space.
Equipment for Ages 2 to 5
Playgrounds for toddlers should include plenty of independent events to allow for solitary and parallel play. Because kids in this age range tend to gravitate toward climbing and imaginative play activities, installing freestanding pieces provides interesting features for them to explore and get used to playing with their peers.
Here are some ideas for components you can use for toddlers and preschoolers:
- Climbers: Soft, low-to-the-ground climbing sculptures made from touch-friendly materials like glass fiber reinforced polymer (GFRP) allow kids to safely explore their surroundings. Plus, choosing shapes like a ladybug or rabbit can engage a child’s imagination and increase the cohesiveness of your playground.
- Crawl tunnels: Incorporating crawl tunnels into your playground provides a great opportunity for small kids to develop key motor skills. Tunnels in unusual shapes and colors like the Animal Crawl Tunnel also help to encourage imaginative play by creating a fantastical setting for a child’s adventures.
- Enclosed play spaces: Enclosed play areas like playhouses and fire stations provide engaging settings for kids to create their own worlds and stories.
- Spring riders: Kids need to stabilize themselves and hold on to ride a spring rider, which improves their core strength and improves coordination. Spring riders come in a variety of shapes and sizes to match any playground, including horses and grasshoppers.
Equipment for this age range should be scaled appropriately to accommodate smaller children. Additionally, make sure all decks and platforms have a maximum fall height of no more than four or five feet.
Equipment for Ages 5 to 12
Although children at this stage develop rapidly, there are significant physical and mental differences between kids at the younger and older ends of this age range.
Kids in this age range are more independent than toddlers, so they have more freedom in the choices they make on the playground. As a result, it’s best to provide a good range of equipment that enables different styles of play. Some examples include:
- Swings: Swinging helps older kids increase their spatial awareness and develop fine and gross motor skills. Unique events like team swings can encourage kids to develop their social skills as well as their physical abilities.
- Musical instruments: Installing musical equipment on your playground teaches kids to recognize sound patterns and express their emotions through music. It presents the kind of mental stimulation that older kids need while also enabling smaller children to experiment and enjoy themselves.
- Climbers: Chain or rope climbers present a challenge to older kids because they develop upper body and grip strength by pulling their body weight up. These components can also act as entry and exit points from playground structures.
- Spinners: Spinning events like the ZoomTwist provide exciting, challenging play experiences for kids of all abilities. These independent events allow kids to build courage while simultaneously developing their balance and full-body strength.
- Slides: Higher, more complex slides like our Hypersonic Slide allow older kids to experience the thrills of high-speed sliding.
- Sandboxes: A sand and water table encourages kids to engage in manipulative play by building structures and landscapes.
Equipment for Ages 2 to 12
If you’re designing a single play area for kids of all ages, it’s important to provide a mix of play elements that allow for interactive fun while still promoting safety for the younger kids.
The most age-inclusive playground equipment can include:
- Low slides: Slides that are low to the ground can still be exciting. Choose slides in a variety of shapes, like elbow curves, waves, or mild spirals, to provide a thrilling experience for everyone.
- Educational activity panels: Activity panels provide kids with an opportunity to learn while on the playground. Panels that teach math operations, spelling, or even sign language are excellent ways to make learning fun.
- Open play areas: Open areas like miniature stages encourage kids to engage in cooperative dramatic or competitive play, which helps them develop their imaginations and social skills.
- Tunnels: Crawl tunnels offer children of all ages a fun and interactive way to play with their peers. They’re accessible for kids of varying ability levels because kids have a variety of ways to move through them, from crawling to scooting themselves through.
In general, it’s best to avoid overhead components like monkey bars or horizontal climbers since they are often too tall for little kids. Similarly, you should leave out components with a lot of moving parts, as small kids do not have the motor skills or strength necessary to maintain their balance on this equipment.
Little Tikes Commercial Solutions
At Little Tikes Commercial, we help clients design and build innovative, imaginative play spaces. From a custom-themed build to a pre-designed solution, we’re here to bring the benefits of play to as many communities as possible.
We’re committed to creating safe, durable, sustainable products that enable children to learn and grow. You can count on us to help you build a custom playground to suit all ages.
Custom Playgrounds From Little Tikes Commercial
When it comes to age-inclusive playgrounds, customizability opens the door to unlimited possibilities. Choosing to build a custom playground with Little Tikes Commercial is a great way to provide the right play equipment for each age group, from toddlers to 12-year-olds.
Our team of expert playground designers can help you create an aesthetically cohesive, exciting playground for kids of all ages and abilities. Whether you’re looking to build a single all-ages play area or separate areas for each age group, you’ll be able to build a playground that supports your community’s needs.
Buy Playground Equipment for All Ages From Little Tikes Commercial
Our mission is to empower kids of all ages and abilities to thrive in every area of their lives — and that starts with play. Engaging in imaginative play is key to ensuring a child’s success because it enables them to develop skills that are essential to everyday life.
We design our playground equipment to meet or exceed the safety specifications laid out by leading organizations like ASTM International, the CPSC, the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), and more.
We create playgrounds for a variety of markets, including parks and recreation, schools, early childhood centers, and more. Contact us for more information about building exciting all-age playgrounds with Little Tikes Commercial.