Creativity Learning Play

What do we need from a play environment?

9 points to help you plan for your setting.

A school with a super supportive parent group can often fall into the Heffalump trap of fund raising for 1 large piece of play equipment. We need to ask what do we need from a play environment? Taking the time to read this article could mean you develop a richer environment for all who use it.

Having come from a school background and re-trained in garden design & horticulture, it was so refreshing to look at different approach to planning a play space at a more considered level. The 9 points in this piece are quite theoretical but it’s definitely worth going through these steps as the outcomes will be of a much higher, richer and more sustainable level for your setting.

Children spend their days in a variety of settings and the environment and spaces offered to them set the scene for so much of their development. In these spaces children experience friendships, group activity as well as solitude, adventure, fantasy, mystery, physical activity… the list goes on. A play space is where children can exercise power and control, where socialisation, fun and learning go hand in hand and where children can influence and be influenced by their surroundings.

So, if you are fortunate enough to work in a setting with children, if you home school or if you wish to consider your own home and the way you organise it, then here are some considerations for you.

Before reaching for catalogues of manufactured equipment, use these 9 steps when planning an outdoor play area. It is hoped that you can create a much richer environment than that which is typically offered. I have included some further considerations for children in the setting who may have Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD.)


Confusion can arise when the environment does not provide cues about what is accessible and what is not. Access issues can direct time and energy away from facilitation of play activities. Children spend too much time learning what they can and cannot do and teachers spend too much time ‘policing.’ Having a visual or tactile cue e.g. cobbles or a painted floor or a line around a storage shed, can make boundaries simpler for all children. Children are low to the ground – changing the surface can act as a cue, define and clarify potential activities. Offering the opportunity for children to be elevated is not a view normally available to children.


Outside does not necessarily equal vigorous or active play at all times. There is a need for an area in which to be still and relax. This ensures that ‘letting off steam’ is a choice, not an expectation. The typically bright colours of off the shelf play equipment may lead to over stimulation. Consider calmer colours.


What is challenging for one child may prove a hazard for another, particularly for children with an ASD. As a child with autism may lack the ability to generalise information, there are major implications for safety. Learning that jumping off a small bench may be an enjoyable experience but for children with an ASD jumping off a higher structure may only involve the pleasure element, without a consideration of the dangers. Although it is important to include risks this must be provided without physical danger. For example, play structures must be surrounded by appropriate flooring to minimise injury from falls. The opportunity for well supervised repetition also needs to be added in so that there is a chance to practice a growing competence when it is no longer a risk e.g. using trike / bicycles.

2 swings, side by side on a frame

A combination of all of these elements can be found in SWINGS. In risk assessments they offer a high risk for accidents. However, if a setting is willing to embrace the risk swings offer many learning opportunities. Swings set side by side offer an opportunity for interaction, but rejecting this offer will not cause play to halt as it would on a see saw. The rhythm of swinging is appealing, particularly for children with an ASD who may readily pick up on this. At a more complex level swings offer a chance for physical and social problem solving: can you swing independently? How long is a turn? What determines a turn.

small boy in woodland peeling the bark from a stick
Peeling the bark from a stick.


Soft e.g. thick pile rugs, grass, pillows, rabbits.

Hard e.g. Cooking, painting, stacking blocks, wheeled toys.

If the hard environment dominates, resistant to the human imprint, it appears impersonal to those who use it. Such settings become easier to maintain but less responsive to the overall needs of children. A child with an ASD may respond to tactile stimulation and may repeatedly run their fingers over a particular brick or cloth. Providing a range of textures can introduce a variety of experience.

Differing textures on the floor can also promote physical development e.g. moving across a cobbled area requires more physical agility than a smooth surface. Some children with an ASD demonstrate a desire to be tightly enclosed. Special needs resource suppliers sell weighted vests which children enjoy wearing. Others enjoy the sensation of wearing a man’s heavy coat or hiding between sofa cushions. Consider providing both hard and soft environments which offer this opportunity.


There is a need for a balance of access to:

Natural World Exploration: plants, stones, life cycles, bark, wet fur, leaves.

Man made exploration: a chance to tinker with things e.g. wheels, ramps Safety considerations may come from children who like to put things into their mouths to further explore them. Planting plans and products used need to be as non-toxic as possible.


OPEN = no specific end product. The emphasis is on the process e.g. sand play, dressing up, water play.

CLOSED = a specific outcome e.g. puzzles, basketball and hoop, computer games (although games such as Minecraft have opened this up.)


Through change we can clarify a question for ourselves. It is a way we can solve problems. Routines, their change and permanence can give structure to our lives. Children with an ASD can rely heavily on routine as this can provide security in a setting. Changes in this routine, especially if unexpected, can prove unsettling. The outdoor environment can provide opportunities for permanence in its structure but introduce opportunities for change within it. e.g. a maze may offer a set path to a goal. The ‘prize’ at the centre of the maze may change.

Landmarks within an environment can offer a sense of place. This can offer a sense of security in its permanence e.g. a school may have a tree which offers security in its permanence yet change as it changes with the seasons. Other features that offer a sense of place might be a water fountain or a school cat. Landmarks help children know where they are, negotiate where they are going and organise their pathways of exploration.


It is positive to have a time to choose who to be with and when to be alone. Privacy comes from an ability to control the environment. In a group you can learn to understand your place as an individual within the whole. Children with a higher functioning ASD may long to be part of a group, but struggle to understand the social codes that allow this. Opportunities in a school environment to be part of a group are essential so that these codes can be taught e.g. a see saw.


Simple units e.g. a swing, slide or trike have one obvious use. A sponge, a bucket of water and a trike create a complex environment. As always there is a need for choice. Simple play offers structure and direction. Complex play offers the opportunity to play in unpredictable ways. In her book Landscapes for Learning, Sharon Stine suggests that the dominant focus of outside space planning is on play structures. However, she suggests that an outside space needs to be analysed according to the presence or absence of a range of dimensions. The Playing Fields Association offer the following acronym to influence the creation of a rich play area:


Social interaction

Physical Activity

Intellectual Stimulation

Creative achievement

Emotional Stability

Funding has always been a issue for play areas. Much planning starts with catalogues of manufactured play equipment – which can be very expensive. Using the above 9 elements when designing an outdoor play area it is hoped that a richer environment can be provided rather than that which is so typical: all the energy and funding going into one single use play structure. A consideration is that a school or play setting may benefit from working with a designer in their planning to offer alternative thought processes. #play#playstructures#outdoorplayenvironment#childrenandplay#schoolplaygroupnds#landscapedesign#childdevelopment#EarlyYears#FoundationStage#NationalCurriculum#playandlearning