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7 Critical Steps for Planning a Playground Layout

7 Critical Steps for Planning a Playground Layout

Before choosing the actual layout for your playground, it’s helpful to have an overall plan or design for the placement of furnishings.  You will want to organize the space in a way that will promote physical and social play while minimizing conflicts.  The following is called the zoned approach and was outlined in Esbenson in his book “The Early Childhood Playground: An Outdoor Classroom”. Similar to the way a classroom is arranged  into specific areas or centers, small groupings of functionally separate outdoor play areas called zones can enrich children’s interaction withe the equipment, nature, adults, and one another.  Instead of having one large, central structure that attempts to provide a variety of experiences and activities for children, each zone includes several smaller, related activities and pieces of equipment. This allows more active play areas to be separated from areas that involve less noisy creative of manipulative activities and can help minimize the tendency for louder, bigger boys to dominate a play structure.
Esbenson outlines seven distinct zones:

1. Transition zone: The area between your building and thee playground or between different play zones.  This area allow children time  and space to decide where they want to go as they enter the playground.  This can include open space, or seating areas.

2. Manipulative/Creative Zone: Although a place for large-motor activities, fine-motor activities can also be promoted outside.  The zone can include a table, ease with paints, or panels with manipulatives.

3. Projective/Fantasy Zone: This area is filled withe materials to fuel children’s imaginations: crates of plastic animals, loose parts, stacks of blocks, and buckets of toy bulldozers.  Locate water and sand nearby.

4. Focal/Social Zone: Although an action-oriented space, this area fosters a sense of community, a place where children can sit and talk with their peers, share a discovery or simply observe.  Picnic tables, benches, shaded area, or large stones.

5. Social/dramatic Zone: Dramatic play offers a safe arena to try out new roles.  A playhouse with sensory panels, play car, play fort, trike track with stations and signs, can stimulate all kinds of language and social play.  Add some props from in-doors too, e.g. costumes, etc.

6. Physical Zone: This area includes activities that can’t be included indoors.  children can develop climbing skills, strengthen their muscles, and improve balance and coordination.  The equipment in this zone should allow for many different uses and stimulate the imagination as well as encourage physical activity.   Plan open areas, as some of the best physical activity – running, walking, jumping, rolling–requires no equipment. equipment such as a toss-up goal, stenciled areas, and trike tracks are important elements.  The equipment must be age-appropriate and scaled to the developmental abilities of the children using it.  The structures are so high that children need assistance, or so low that they misbehave and abuse it, accidents  both minor and sever are sure to occur.

7. Natural element zones: Sand, grass, nontoxic plants, flowers, and trees are an important part of children’s outdoor exploration, and certainly your entire outdoor space should contain a variety of natural elements.
The following was adapted from Tracy Theemes’ “Let’s Go Outside! Designing the Early Childhood Playground”

Don’t forget to reference the Fundraising Resources page on the top right tab, for products and resource to help you with your playground fundraiser.  If you are located in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and would like assistance in planning and designing an early childhood playground, please contact us at

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