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Children’s play area design: How landscape architects set the stage for fun and games

November 23, 2021

By Jim Vafiades

Exploring the behind-the-scenes design ideas that lead to playful outdoor spaces at parks, playgrounds, and child care centers

As a landscape architect, you can’t beat the feeling of watching kids enjoy a play area you designed. That’s one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve experienced as a professional with more than 30 years in the business. 

If you’re considering working with a landscape architect for a new park, playground, or the outdoor spaces for a school or child care center, you might have some questions about what goes into designing a functional, safe, aesthetically pleasing children’s play area. I’m happy to share some of the thoughts that run through my mind when I start designing these projects for youngsters. Using examples from a recent rewarding project in my hometown of Toronto, let’s dive into some of the behind-the-scenes ideas that go into good play area design. 

Anishnawbe Health’s Indigenous Hub and the Miziwe Biik Training Institute

I recently had the opportunity to design a children’s play area at a new, innovative, mixed-use Indigenous Hub coming to Toronto. Envisioned as a place of healing and education, Anishnawbe Health’s Indigenous Hub—with a masterplan developed by Stantec and BDP Quadrangle in consultation with Indigenous-owned firm Two Row Architect—will blend traditional and Western medicine. It’ll celebrate Indigenous culture and tradition while improving access to essential health and wellness services for Toronto’s Indigenous community.

This sketch from the Miziwe Biik Training Institute project shows the stepping logs that Jim Vafiades incorporated to encourage active play.

The Hub, scheduled for completion in 2023, features several buildings—including the Indigenous Community Health Centre, designed by Stantec with Two Row Architect, and the Miziwe Biik Training Institute, designed by BDP Quadrangle with Two Row Architect. Along with offering Indigenous skills training, education, and employment programs, the Training Institute includes an Indigenous EarlyON Child and Family Centre with a child care center—and I was honored to work on the outdoor play spaces for it.

Follow the standards and laws

Let’s get into some of the key thoughts for starting a play area design. Early on, you need to establish the technical basics—looking at local standards, laws, and requirements—because that’ll dictate how you design the space.

For example, in Canada we follow safety guidelines from the Canadian Standards Association for children’s play spaces and equipment. This standard provides guidance on materials, installation, strength of the equipment, surfacing, access to the playground, play space layout, and other safety-related things.

Aside from working within safety guidelines, you also need to establish the square footage you’ll be working with, because local laws will likely require a certain amount of play space per child outdoors. Here in Ontario, my clients must adhere to the province’s Child Care and Early Years Act. The City of Toronto also created a helpful document called the Child Care Design and Technical Guideline, which provides recommendations on elements such as the amount of shade required, types of surfaces, and tips on how to engage children of diverse abilities.

Jim Vafiades found inspiration in teardrop-shaped drumlins for his child care center design for the Miziwe Biik Training Institute in Toronto.

While working on the child care center for the Miziwe Biik Training Institute, I needed to establish how many kids from each age group the center would be expecting: infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. I then ensured that we met the square footage requirement for the number of children. Once I figured out those basics, I was able to start thinking about what structures to place in that finite space.

Understand your user group

For all my projects—not just play areas—I always try to understand the needs of my user group. Who are you designing for? I see myself as a guide to make sure we create something special, functional, and safe for my clients.

In the case of a play area, how can you understand the mind of a child? As a grandfather, I’ve been given a perfect resource—my grandkids. I interviewed them in the early stages of the Training Institute project, asking them what they enjoyed the most about play areas. Their favorite part? Playing with friends. Dancing, doing cartwheels, and being together. So, I made sure to build opportunities for that social interaction into my design.

Incorporate options for different styles of play

When I begin developing ideas for play area design, I focus on four themes: social interaction, active play, quiet contemplation, and group fun with caregivers. This way, kids and their caregivers can use the play spaces in different ways, depending on their mood or needs. I create micro places within the overall play area that cater to these different aspects of how kids play outside. And I try to make sure these spaces work well together—for example, you don’t want to place a quiet area next to active play equipment.  

As a grandfather, I’ve been given the perfect resource—my grandkids. I interviewed them in the early stages of the Training Institute project.

Let’s look at the Training Institute project to illustrate these different themes. For social interaction, we’ve added some cool details: a set of two talk tubes where kids can talk to each other like the old “can and string”-style telephone, a sand play area where kids can work together to discover a dinosaur fossil, and a stage where kids can dance or perform a little play.

For active play, we’ve designed stepping logs that children can maneuver, since I know kids love walking along edges that are slightly higher than the ground. We’ve also designated an area for little ones to use their tricycles.

It’s important to provide quiet contemplative spaces—or what I sometimes call passive play spaces—so that kids have time to play calmly on their own. In park settings, you might use a group of trees for this purpose. For the Training Institute project, we’ve incorporated a little bench beside a planter for kids to relax by themselves if they like. We’ve also designed a playhouse that could be used for either social play, or quiet play, since the playhouse features three walls that provide a bit of privacy—but also includes holes so that caregivers can keep an eye on the little ones. 

When designing a play area for children, it’s important to keep active play areas away from spaces for quiet contemplation.

For group activities—where a caregiver leads a song session or reads a story—we’ve provided the mini stage as well as seating around the sand play area. The stage gives us a good example of a space that serves multiple functions, for both social interaction and organized group activities and dramatic play.

Create a connection to nature

It’s also important to consider the colors and textures that you’ll be incorporating into your play area design. Recently, there’s been a movement away from vibrant primary colors and toward more naturalistic playground design. To foster that connection with nature, it’s important to introduce plant material so kids start to understand the importance of trees, for example. For the Training Institute project, we introduced real logs into the design, as well as trees and a spout for water play.

Reflect the local community

My favorite play area designs are the ones that find inspiration in the local area or subtly pay tribute to a community. Of course, sometimes a play area is simply a playground behind a school. But if there’s a chance to incorporate a regional reference—a sketch of a city’s unique skyline, for example, or a nod to a prominent local animal, like raccoons here in Toronto—I’m all for it. 

There’s been a movement toward naturalistic design for play areas.

For the Training Institute child care center outdoor design, we found inspiration in several natural landforms from Ontario and used those shapes in our design. One elegant and distinct landform in particular, the drumlin, inspired the teardrop-like shapes in the play area. This was a deliberate way to connect the space to nature and the land. My interactions with the community during this project taught me about the importance of that strong connection to nature for many Indigenous cultures. I also designed an interactive art display—essentially a puzzle where kids can rotate vertical tubes to line up graphics on either side—that can provide an Indigenous artist the opportunity to create two meaningful paintings for the community.

Joyful projects

As a veteran landscape architect and a grandfather, I’ve found immense joy in creating play area designs. I’m thrilled to see the child care center at the Indigenous Hub’s Miziwe Biik Training Institute take shape, and I’m counting the days until kids can spend their days laughing and playing on something I designed. You just can’t beat that feeling. 

  • Jim Vafiades

    For Jim, a landscape architect for over 32 years, successful design is about understanding who is using a space and providing them with a place they want to be a part of, not just move through.

    Contact Jim
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