Playgrounds and Creative Play AreasHow might a playground best contribute to creative development?

Play and Child Development:

Play seems to be a universal trait. Humans play, dogs play, kittens play, elephants play, even the baby rabbits out my window like to play. Play is also a key component in learning, human development and creativity. Play has been found to help children contextualize and understand the world around them, develop problem solving skills, social skills, coordination, perception and motor-skills (Frost 1992, Miller 1972). Psychologists and researchers and developed a number of theories on the reasons why children play and how play contributes to development.

Early theorists including Schiller and Spencer in the 1800s theorized that play was the result of excess energy, meaning that when children had too much energy to work they would play until they had burned off enough energy to work again. Interestingly, Schiller and Spencer also equated play to the origins of art (Frost 1992). Darwin related children's play to evolution and, in with his Recapitulation Theory believed that children were the link to prehistoric humans and re-enacted past interests and occupations through play. Climbing trees, for example would display a connection to ape-like ancestors while group play would echo tribal life. More contemporary theories have turned the focus of play studies towards child development (Frost 1992).

Psychologists, such as Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson believed that play was a large factor in the development of a happy and healthy child. For Freud, a child was able to fulfill wishes and gain gratification through play, leading to a more happy child. Jean Piaget later developed the Cognitive-Development Theory, in which play is both a a vehicle for and a result of cognitive development. According to Piaget, children masters skills and gain knowledge through play; the mastery of one skill leading to the movement towards mastery of another skill, which leads to the development of new kind of play to meet the needs of more advanced skills and knowledge (Frost, 1992). For cognitive-development theorists such as Piaget and Sara Smilansky there are stages of play usually referred to as: Functional, construction, symbolic, socio-dramatic, and games with rules (Frost, 1992; Senda, 1992; Miller, 1972).

A little more on the types of play:


Functional: Functional play, also referred to as exercise play is described as the first stage of play, where children acquire motor skills through repeated actions. This is generally associated with infants and early development, but children and adults continue to master physical skills and feats throughout life, especially in sports activities.

Construction Play: Construction play refers to purposeful play that results in some form of creation. Through construction play children use materials and generally have some sort of end goal in mind. This type of play usually leads to an increase in drama and collaborative play as well.

Symbolic Play: Symbolic play is most associated with make believe and representation of absent objects, such as drinking from an empty box to symbolize drinking liquid from a cup. Children generally begin this type of play around the age of two, moving from practice and repetitive games to games involving more drama and imitation. This type of play also enables children act out and better understand the world around them.

Socio-dramatic Play: Socio-dramatic play is a more developed form of symbolic/dramatic play in which children engage in role-playing with other children through imitation and make-believe. According to Smilansky (1968, 1990) "sociodramtic play contributes to the development of creativity, intellectual growth, and social skills" (Frost, 1992, 82). Through socio-dramatic play children learn to understand and work with the roles of others.

Games with Rules: Games with rules represent the highest form of cognitive development with regard to play. When playing games with rules children are able to interact with other children/adults in given context and set of rules. Children learn to control their behavior within limits and to develop specific skills, whereas socio-dramatic play is more concerned with overall social and intellectual development (Frost, 1992; Miller, 1972).

Some interesting quotes about play and development:

"Play leads to discovery, verbal judgement, and reasoning. It is significant for manipulative skills, imaginative art, discovery, reasoning and though" (Isaacs, 1933 as referenced in Frost, 1992, p.18).

"Play with objects results in divergent production or more uses for objects (Frost, 1992; Sutton-Smith, 1968; Goodnow, 1969; Dansky, 1980) and improve problem solving (Sylva, 1977; Smith & Dutton, 1979 as referenced in Frost, 1992, p.18)." *Divergent production is an indicator of creativity

"Divergent play experiences result in improved problem solving ( Sutton-Smith, 1968; Dansky& Silverman, 1973; Dansky, 1980 as referenced in Frost, 1992, p.18).

"Play is an indispensable element in child development. It is the child's natural process of learning and development and, consequently, a critical ingredient in the educative process (Frost 1992, p.19).

"Imaginative 'make-believe' play develops the young brain in the areas of symbolic and abstract thought and allows children to replay their experiences so as to process, understand and internalize them" (White, 2008, p.88).

"Children's play is characterized by spontaneity, freedom, creativity, discovery, and joy" (Miller, 1962, p.7).

"Different types of play give children opportunities to make choices and use their own ideas. Because play is voluntary and self-initiated, it promotes freedom and self-expression" (White, 2008, p.7).

So what does this have to do with creativity and playgrounds?

As an integral part of child development, play is also significant in the development of creativity. Play provides opportunities for children to imagine, pretend and create, especially through socio-dramatic play and constructive play (White, 2008; Frost 1992). Play is often times spontaneous, original, and non-conforming. Play also helps children develop divergent-thinking and problem solving skills (often considered strong indicators of creativity) through opportunities to interpret objects and situations and put them together in new ways. Varied methods of play also contribute to the healthy development of physical, intellectual, emotional and social skills, which lead to the development of healthy and happier adults, who, according to Maslow, would be better equipped for creative pursuits. Playfulness is listed by many creative people as a strong factor in their ability to create. The creative process is often in itself a form of play (Runco, 2007). Play enables children and adults to form understanding and ideas about the world, to relax and recharge, to imagine new worlds and concepts, and to rebuild the world around them, which are all valuable factors in the growth and application of creativity.

As discussed above, there are many forms of play which are valuable for different types of physical and cognitive development. Variations in space and opportunities for play are also very important for the development of healthy, creative individuals, which is where playgrounds come in to play. Outdoor playspaces have a number of benefits for child development and creativity which include:
  • Providing an outlet for different types of play including function/motor development, construction, socio-dramatic, and games with rules.
  • Well designed play areas offer children multiple opportunities for interpretation and imagination
  • Outdoor play spaces allow children to connect with nature and develop a relationship with the world around them
  • Nature provides objects and resources for dramatic and construction play that are not possible through man made objects
  • Playing in nature helps children develop a love and respect for the environment
  • Playgrounds serve as community spaces which provide opportunities for social and socio-dramtic way
  • Playgrounds can be magical places which allow children to assume new roles and realities and further develop their imagination and creativity
  • In many urban areas there is a loss of natural play space, well designed play areas can provide children with access to the natural world
  • Exposure to many environments and types of play can help develop more creative and happy children
  • Playgrounds provide some freedom from boundaries and rules and provide opportunities for divergent thinking
  • Playgrounds can be fun and awesome

Types of Playgrounds:


Traditional: Traditional playgrounds are what what you find at most schools and parks in the United States. Traditional playgrounds are predominately focused on physical play, motor skills and burning off steam. In urban areas particularly they tend to be blacktopped, equipped with steel or plastic structures such as swings, slides, seesaws and climbers. Many times these playgrounds are flat and lack in natural space or inspiration for for dramatic play, make-believe, symbolic or construction play (Frost, 1992; Miller, 1972).

Designer Playgrounds: Designer playgrounds are designed by professionals in recreation, education, design and architecture. They are focused more on providing spaces that meet the developmental needs of children and are aesthetically pleasing. They are usually bigger, more open and permit a wider range of activities than traditional

Richard Dattner designed a number of play areas in the 1960s and 1970 including and ancient Egyptian themed park in Central park adjacent to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to bring to life some of the artifacts in the museum (Miller, 1972).

Adventure Playgrounds: Adventure playgrounds are better known in Europe than in the United States. They were first introduced in Denmark after the Second World War when landscape architect C.Th. Sorenson observed that children seemed to enjoy playing with scrap materials on construction sites more than on finished playgrounds. Adventure playgrounds offer a space for children to build and create their own environment. With the help of recycled, found and other materials and trained play leaders children are able to build huts, walls, forts, gardens, tunnels, etc. Not always aesthetically pleasing to the local community these playgrounds have a great mix of play structures, construction activities, role playing materials and spaces, chill out spaces, and freedom for children to play and express themselves (Frost, 1992; Miller ,1972).A well-known US Adventure Playground is Mountain Park in Houston, Texas, built in 1979. In response to playing at Mountain Park one child stated "my favorite part was the carpentry because I built an airplane a little longer than my arm and it weighed three pounds. My next favorite thing was playing with that big ball. I had the best time of (my) life, funnier than Astroworld" (Frost, 1992, p.281). Below are images from Kilburne Grange Adventure Park in Camden, London which has a climbing structure, rope swing, sandpit, tree house and building activities during building hours (

kilburne_park_grange_adventure_playground2.jpg Kilburne_Park.jpg Kilburne.jpg


From Giamis Adventure Playground, Shadwell, London

Creative Playgrounds: Creative playgrounds are often times a fusion of the above playground types. Creative playgrounds seek to provide children with multiple play possibilities at a low cost. For this reason they are often built from recycled materials and found objects. These types of playgrounds also often arise from a community initiative and involve much more community collaboration than other playground types (Miller, 1972). Below are images from a playground I built with Art Relief International and The Stratton ABC Foundation in Thailand in 2010.

climber.jpg hill_and_slide.jpg

What kinds of things should be in playgrounds to stimulate creativity and development? You can always ask the kids what they want too!

  • Equipment to promote physical play and motor skills development such as climbing structures, paths for running, monkey bars, and rope bridges
  • Equipment for constructive play such as buckets, baskets, branches, twigs, tools, sand and water
  • Structures or spaces that inspire dramatic play; club houses, magical places, tunnels, secret nooks and hiding places, cars, boats, other found objects, natural elements, hollowed out logs, rope bridges or troll bridges, wooden rafts in ponds, tents or tee pees
  • Space for large scale games and sports such as soccer and other ball games
  • Natural space and materials
  • A layout that inspires combining structures and elements into large scale socio-dramatic play (Frost, 1992; Senda 1992).
  • Sand, water and other elements that can be explored and reshaped
  • Landscapes that spark wonder and imagination such as fairy tale, story book, under the sea, big world and other fantasy scapes
  • Freedom for children to develop their own play styles
  • Structures that can be interpreted in multiple ways
  • Spaces for solitary play activities
  • A range of structures and equipment to accommodate children of different age levels and to accommodate development of different play stages

"They [play structures] must be catalysts in generating play. The same can be said of the space in which they play. This too must be such that it will spontaneously entice children into playing. A good play space will lead children to play freely and without restriction" (Senda, 1992, p.8).

Examples of interesting and inspiring playgrounds from the world:

Playgrounds that incorporate natural space well:

Spiral Garden, Palo Alto, California. Designed by zoo keeper and landscaper Curtis Tom this playground uses recylcedl stumps of vairous heights, colors and widths. He also planted a variety of plants and placed different objects including petrified woods. The playground challenges children with different heights and incorporates natural elements and found objects.

Wilson Park, Arkansas. Created by Frank Williams in 1980. This space is great because it combines natural elements with a magical world. The loose representation of a castle allows children to use thier imaginations when playing in the space and creating the world around it. Williams himself noted that it is a place "where many children forget about television and video games".
Wilson Park, Arkansas. Created by Frank Williams in 1980. This space is great because it combines natural elements with a magical world. The loose representation of a castle allows children to use thier imaginations when playing in the space and creating the world around it. Williams himself noted that it is a place "where many children forget about television and video games".

This playground in Germany isn't a great example of natural or dramatic play but it's neat how they incorporated the hill into the play ground design and created a community space at the top.

An example of a natural playground in Copenhagen. The big logs are great for climbing on and could inspire a variety of settings such as a rainforest, river raft, space adventure, secret island and many other fun places. It would be better if the area wasn't blocked off by a wooden barrier. Leaving it open would encourage children to play and travel between structures.

Another hut at Santa Barbara Botanical Gardens

The Wave Field by Maya Lin, this is not actually a playground but looks like a lot of fun to run and play on. Building features out of grass and dirt is a great way to green up spaces and create interesting and engaging play areas.

The Haye Playground in Southwark, London, another cool example of creating playful structures out of natural materials

Some more fun with rocks to inspire movement and play between strucutres

SafeZone Playground, Stroll landscape Urbanism, 2006.This playground isn't totally natural space but it looks so fun. It is made from everyday materials including subway platforms, sidewalks, goal posts and poured in place rubber giving it a bouncy surface. The materials, design and materials engage the imagination. It is missing many of the elements that encourage different types of play such as forts, cubby holes, climbing structures, and construction materials but it still inspires creative play and make-believe.



Climbing Structures:

For ease of viewing I have attached a PDF:
Climbing Structures.pdf

Sensory and Socio-dramatic Play elements:

Other playground features.pdf

Imagination Playground is a playground in a box that lets children build and rebuild the world around them. The goal of Imagination Playground is to let encourage "child directed, unstructured free play",

Some other cool imaginative play areas:

Sudely Castle: Adventure Playground:

City Museum St.Loius, MO:

What would your fantasy playground look like:

Feel free to add ideas, drawings, pictures or inspiration for your ideal play elements!

Things I want in my playground:
FIg Tree

  • I really love trees and tree houses. I would love to create a climber that resembled the bottom of a fig tree . There would be lots of limbs on the trunk of the tree and holes and hand holds for climbing. You could put a rope ladder on one side and maybe a cargo net. There would be lots of nooks and places to climb which would lead to a tree-cubby house at the top. I think I would put a pulley system for bringing things up to the house and a zip line to get down or a rope bridge to another tree house. I've always thought it would be really awesome to have a tree top village like the Ewok village in Star Wars.
  • I would also build huts into the side of a hill or bank so that part of the roof would be a hill that children could run on. It would also be really great to build tunnels between the huts that the children could call through and nooks they could hide in.
  • GIant World: Big world was always my favorite level on Super Mario Bros. I would love to create giant blocks and mushrooms, cupcakes, and flowers, etc. for people to jump on. In some of the mushrooms or flowers I would make climbing spaces and cubby spaces. I would love to put a spiral walk way in one and some balcony/look out spaces and rope bridges to connect the structures and rope swings for fun.
  • I have also always wanted to live in a magical kingdom. I would probably put a castle or some castle walls to give the impression of a magical kingdom. I would want to have a moat and draw bridge and a tower in my kingdom.
  • Ancient worlds. I love the idea of recreating ancient worlds through playgrounds. I think this is a great starting point for creative and aesthetic design. I would go for a Mayan world first and than a waddle and cobb world like old England.
  • I would also add options for musical play such as wooden pipes and stone xylophones and tubes that children can talk into and make weird sounds like didgeridoos. Some would be connected as well so children could talk to each other.

A cupcake climber to go on the "giant" playground

Paige L. Jounson. (2008-2011). Playscapes; A blog about playground design. Retrieved from

Pink Tentacle. (2007). Photos of cephalopodic playscapes. Retrieved from

Just Cool Pics Blog. (2010). Unique and creative playgrounds. Retrieved from

Imagination Playground. Retrieved from

Kaboom! Website. Retrieved from

Frost, J. (1992). Play and playscapes. Albany, New York: Delmar Publishers Inc.
Miller, P.L. (1972). Creative outdoor play areas. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Runco, M.A. (2007). Creativity; Theories and themes: research, development, and practice. Multiple locations: Elsevier.
Senda, M. (1992). Design of children's play environments. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
White, J. (2008). Playing and learning outdoors. New York: Routledge.

Shepard, B. (2005). Play, creativity, and the new community organizing. Journal of Progressive Human Services, Vol.16 (2), 47-69.