6 must-haves for the perfect, nurturing playground

THE BEST PLAY AREAS offer more than recreation. They provide children with a dynamic classroom in which to hone motor skills, test boundaries, and learn conflict resolution. Yet child development experts and architects alike agree that many of the spaces we have now don’t always facilitate the kind of rich, meaningful play that provides those lessons. They say these six components are critical to creating the ideal outdoor experience—and to making recess as entertaining as possible.

  1. Inspire imagination: Little ones exercise their innate creativity by working with materials and tools to craft ever-changing adventures. Things like crates, tires, sand, and water allow active minds to devise and revise all kinds of engaging activities alone or with others.
  2. Provide challenges: Allowing rugrats to take age-appropriate risks builds confidence. Fast slides, big swing sets, and plenty of climbing options like trees deliver excitement that staves off boredom. The threat of injury may terrify parents, but statistics don’t support such fears.
  3. Cover the basics: The best parks provide everything necessary for an extended stay. Shade, a restroom, somewhere to change diapers or dirty clothes, comfy seating, and a nearby place to grab a snack are key to ensuring fun gets the serious time it deserves.
  4. Celebrate nature: The outdoors is inherently stimulating; being in green spaces can boost the immune system, reduce stress, and promote social interaction. A grassy, wooded spot also offers room to run and plenty of sticks, mud, and other things tykes find irresistible.
  5. Offer solo space: Kids need to socialize, but sometimes they want a place to retreat. Beyond fostering healthy coping mechanisms—especially for youth who have experienced trauma—alone zones like secluded benches help diffuse tensions by providing a respite from peers.
  6. Incorporate diversity: Playground design must reflect the abilities, languages, and ethnic backgrounds of the entire community. Things like wheelchair accessibility, culturally relevant games, and interactive elements such as drums and chimes make everyone feel included.

This story originally ran in the Fall 2021 Youth issue of PopSci. Read more PopSci+ stories.

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Lauren Leffer


Lauren Leffer is a science, tech, and environmental reporter based in Brooklyn, NY. She writes on many subjects including artificial intelligence, climate, and weird biology because she's curious to a fault. When she's not writing, she's hopefully hiking.