Understanding the Design Process for Outdoor Play & Learning Environments

by Vicki L. Stoecklin

Designing outdoor play and learning environments can be a complex process. This article discusses the steps involved in the design process and should help the practitioner to better understand their role in the process.

Values Clarification

Identifying values and goals is the first step every program should take. It is important to look at the outdoor play and learning environment as one piece of the curriculum approach you are using to help educate children about nature and allow them opportunities to develop through play. Before approaching your renovation or construction project, you should look at what the goals are for your program for nature education both inside and outside and how teachers are trained and supported in reaching those goals. You can build a naturalized outdoor play environment, but if teachers are not trained in how to model an interest and concern for the environment or prepared to build a curriculum around it, much of the opportunity will be lost to teach children an appreciation for nature.

Money Doesn't Talk

One of the first issues that surfaces when I talk with people about outdoor play space renovation or construction is how much will all this cost? Although a valid concern, the question cannot be answered over the telephone or at the beginning of the design process. Determining the cost is based on many different variables which will be discussed further in this article. The only way to get an accurate cost estimate is for an expert to view the potential site, make a site analysis, gather information, evaluate the site design criteria and give you a projected design fee proposal. If you do not have an overall budget figure in mind for the construction or renovation, the expert should be able to assist you in creating one. Preparing a design fee proposal is a lengthy and complex process. Just as you are paid for your hourly work, the expert will expect to be compensated for all the work in this phase of the process.

Actually, rather than being one expert, the design team should be composed of several members whose collective experience includes expertise in early childhood, nature education, landscape architecture, plant selection for children, gardening for children, construction supervision, code and licensing requirements, the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, selection of equipment for young children and safety issues. The entire design team will have input into the design proposal which is coordinated by the expert you have chosen.

Site Visitation and Analysis

In order to prepare the design fee proposal., a visit to your potential site will be necessary to determine its suitability as a children's naturalized play area. Every site has unique characteristics which can influence site development and play opportunities. The expert may be evaluating an existing site for renovation, a pre-selected site for new construction or looking at several sites for future development. In each case, the process of evaluation is the same.

A thorough inventory will need to be made of the location, site function, infrastructure such as drainage, existing land features and natural features. A list will be created and pictures will be taken of existing plants, trees and shrubs. Drainage issues on the existing property will need to be evaluated through a topography and drainage plan. Play areas that ignore drainage and grading issues in their design often end up with pooling water and muddy areas, making them unusable for extended periods of time. Notation will be made of how much sunlight and shade your play area receives, how the site relates to the indoor classrooms and how the site fits into the existing neighborhood. Attention will also be given to how effectively the space provides a sense of enclosure and intimacy for children.

Information Gathering

This aspect of the design process is on-going throughout all phases of a project. Design cannot be created in a vacuum and requires an on-going dialogue between all members of the design team. Early childhood practitioners will need to understand the concurrent nature of the participatory design and be willing to invest both time and energy into the production process. On-going dialogue will enable the collaborative efforts.

Evaluation of Site Design Criteria

After the site has been analyzed, there are still many elements to consider in creating a proposal for designing outdoor spaces. The first is looking at the most basic dimensions of spatial design such as scale, proportion, balance, rhythm, focal point and enclosure. Many elements have to be considered in the design fee proposal phase because these very elements can affect the amount of time and work necessary to actually create a final design. Since a play space for children is a complicated design task, the following criteria will also need to be evaluated in the design fee proposal phase:

  • Outdoor Users - What are the ages and numbers of children using the space? Is this a half day or full day program? How are parents and staff going to use the space?
  • Use of Nature and Equipment - What are the goals you wish to achieve in your outdoor space and can this be accomplished with all natural elements or is some manufactured equipment also needed?
  • Accessibility - Are the playground and equipment accessible to children or adults with disabilities?
  • Equipment - If you are using older equipment in a renovation, does it meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Guidelines for Public Playground Safety and the American Society for Testing Materials' Safety Standards? Is it more appropriate to use wooden or metal playground equipment?
  • Supervision - Who will be supervising the children for outdoor experiences? How are they trained to do their jobs?
  • Storage - How will you be storing your loose outdoor play equipment? Is vandalism a problem in the neighborhood?
  • Diversity - How will the play space offer a safe challenge to meet the diverse developmental needs of children?
  • Shade - How should the play areas be positioned to utilize shade from buildings and vegetation? Will there be adequate shade or is additional shade needed?
  • Compliance Issues - Can this play space meet the state licensing requirements, fire codes that relate to the evacuation of children and the Americans with Disabilities Act's guidelines for children's outdoor play spaces.

Pulling It All Together

Once all of the above information has been considered, the expert can present you with a design fee proposal. The proposal will include fees for both schematic drawings and final construction documents. Schematic drawings are drafts of the visual representation of the outdoor space and a method for you to provide feedback before the final construction documents are prepared. The proposal should also include time for phone consultation and construction coordination and monitoring in addition to a final site visit to verify that the outdoor space was constructed according to the prepared documents. Many early childhood programs unknowingly create safety problems when they try to oversee the construction of the site or installation of the equipment without an expert involved. I have personally visited many unsafe playgrounds both old and new.

Once work has started on your project, the design team will continue to evaluate the site to create a design that includes additional criteria. These criteria will provide the framework for the design team's skill and creativity. Some of the additional design criteria which the design team will use to create an outdoor play and learning space are:

  • Safety
  • Safe challenge
  • Diversity
  • Range of challenges
  • Seasonal changes
  • Flexibility
  • Permanence
  • Change
  • Open-endedness
  • Year-round use
  • Social interaction
  • Balance of passive and active play
  • Variety of socialization spots
  • Variety of spatial experiences
  • Variety of sensual experiences
  • Undefined spaces
  • Private areas
  • Child-parent interaction
  • Separation of activities
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Child-staff interaction
  • Indoor/outdoor relationships
  • Ease of economy and construction
  • Maintenance

Research on children's preferences shows that, if children had the design skills to do so, their creations would be completely different from the areas called playgrounds that most adults design for them. Children's designed outdoor environments would not only be fully naturalized with plants, trees, flowers, water, dirt, sand, mud, animals and insects, but they would also be rich with a wide variety of play opportunities of every imaginable type. Your design team can create that unique environment for children.


  • Ireys, Alice R., Small Gardens for City & Country: A Guide to Designing & Planting Your Green Spaces, 1978, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  • Moore, Robin C., Susan M. Goltsman and Daniel S. Iacofano, Editors, Play For All Guidelines: Planning, Design and Management of Outdoor Play Settings for All Children, 2nd Edition, 1992, MIG Communications, Berkeley, CA.
  • Stoecklin, Vicki L., and Randy White, Designing Quality Child Care Facilities, 1997, White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, Kansas City, MO.
  • White, Randy, and Vicki L. Stoecklin, Creating Outdoor Play & Learning Environments, 1997, White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, Kansas City, MO.
  • Wilson, Ruth A., Nature and Young Children: A Natural Connection, Young Children, September 1995, Vol. 50, No. 6, National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington, D.C