10 Guidelines for Creating an Outdoor Play Space for Preschoolers
“Play centers” or “stations” are the time-honored foundation for hands-on learning in preschool classrooms. From Dramatic Play to Nature and Science to Music and Movement and everything in between, children in this age group just seem to thrive on having a variety of options to choose from and enjoy. When you’re setting up an outdoor play environment, let what engages preschoolers indoors shape your decisions.
- Make Wise Choices. Select equipment that is the right size and level of complexity for the children to be able to interact with safely. Remember that children will use play equipment in unexpected ways, so make sure playground supervisors can see everything going on. It’s important to select playground equipment and activities that are consistent with the amount of supervision and assistance you are able to provide. For example, if you know you will only have two supervising adults, having a piece of equipment that requires one of them to be stationed continuously in a certain area of the program will leave other areas unattended.
- Keep Safety First.. Make sure your plan takes into account sun exposure, topography, the location of existing trees and rocks, and any other potential safety hazards. Lay out short paths of varying widths instead of long, straight paths. Be sure these provide a clear route around the play areas so that children are not as likely to stray into the safety zones around large equipment or interfere with one another’s play. Are deliveries made through the outdoor play space? If so, determine how these may affect outdoor play. And remember to plan for emergency access if needed.
- Use a “centers and zones” concept. Setting up activity centers and zones in your play space will help kids enjoy refreshing opportunities to explore their world, test their physical skills and abilities, and build strength and coordination in a totally different but complementary way.
- Include some “loose parts.” What are loose parts, you ask? Loose parts include toys and natural materials that children can manipulate during play. Examples include:
- Sand buckets, shovels, sifters, and garden tools
- Plastic bins and milk crates
- Child-sized wheelbarrows
- Pine cones, smooth stones, and seashells.
- Hoops, balls, and traffic cones
You can rotate loose parts daily, weekly, monthly or by seasons.
- Add storage. Loose parts are an engaging addition to any play space. Just be sure to include plenty of accessible outdoor storage space. You can typically find storage benches and sheds at garden centers and “big box” stores that are just as sturdy and may be more affordable than early childhood playground catalogs. If you choose wooden storage items, make sure they are either cedar or another weather-resistant wood.
- Group compatible activities together. Plan separate areas for very active and more quiet play, and spread out activities and equipment for large group, small group, and independent play.
- Add some seating. Even the busiest child can need a moment or two of rest. Use benches, tree stumps or picnic tables. Don’t forget to make some seating options adult-sized!
- Be inclusive. Every child wants to play. Manufacturers can adapt the design of play equipment to support children of all abilities, including those with physical, visual, hearing, developmental, and social-emotional challenges. Evaluate how every activity could be made barrier-free, and pay particular attention to the slope of ramps and paths.
- Challenge appropriately. Young children need opportunities to gain physical confidence. With safety and age-appropriateness as primary considerations, seek out equipment and activities that allow children to work on large muscle coordination, especially climbing.
- Handwashing, Drinking, Toileting. If you’re designing a play space as part of a new construction project, strongly consider including an outdoor bathroom. If that isn’t feasible, try to locate your outdoor play space in close proximity to indoor bathrooms to minimize how long it takes for kids to go in and come back out. At a minimum, bring drinking water out to the playground and have buckets and hoses available for rinsing dirty hands.
The most important factor in planning an outdoor play space is to match the equipment, activities, and overall layout to the developmental ages and stages of the children who will be using it. A playground for preschoolers needs to take into account their physical skills and spatial orientation, which are significantly different than those of children who are older. How they interact with their surroundings– even their judgment– is developmentally very different. Although each child’s cognitive and gross motor development are different, keeping in mind these 10 factors above will help you create a dynamic, engaging, and– above all– safe but challenging outdoor play space for preschoolers.