The Play Environment, Part 1 - A new paradigm for parks and play areas

Posted by Gregory Miller on September 20, 2017 12:44:33 PM MDT
Gregory Miller

To read more about Play Environments go to Part 2 and Part 3.

In today’s increasingly urbanized world of fast-paced schedules, where kids are shuttled from one organized activity to another, it has become ever more important for families to have access to parks and play areas. 

Parks and playgrounds fulfill a vital role in the physical, social, and cognitive development of their users. These spaces allow kids and adults to disconnect from electronic devices, explore the world around them, and work together to assess and overcome challenges.

Today’s play areas emphasize a rich palette of play opportunities, designed to capture the imagination and stimulate the senses.  They have become a common ground where everyone can feel free to be a kid.

There are two important design trends that have helped amplify the reach and benefits of public play spaces over the past several years - inclusivity and nature play.


We now see more parks and playgrounds that celebrate inclusive design. In this context, inclusivity doesn’t mean that everybody has to be able to do every activity, but rather that everyone can play together, no matter their inclination or ability. Rather than programming for specific separate user restrictions and requirements, these places opt instead for design solutions that offer a range of accessibility and challenges. This allows each user to participate as best meets their ability and comfort level. These designs also integrate solutions that allow all users to play side-by-side, share a common experience, and develop interpersonal relationships and social skills. 

Nature Play

We are also starting to see play areas that stress 'nature play', featuring elements based on the natural world. The natural world has been our playground for thousands of years, and the benefits of play in a natural environment have been widely documented. Once again we value opportunities for children to discover, invent, and interact with nature (although now within the context of modern safety standards). These natural spaces allow a greater freedom of expression, imagination, creativity, and exploration.

Play Environments

The trends of inclusivity and nature play have combined to create a new paradigm for parks and play areas: the 'play environment'. These play environments blur the boundaries that separate people of differing abilities, ages and interests. Here, the natural and the man-made blend, the boundaries of the playground are breached and play opportunities are extended and multiplied for everyone.

MRWM Landscape Architects Albuquerque New Mexico nature play Sandia Vista Park
Sandia Vista Park, Albuquerque

Coming up

The next blog in this series will describe the evolution and domestication of play areas over time. Play experiences for children gradually changed from wild to tame, from inventive to prescribed, and from free to guarded. The success of standardized safety guidelines led to the proliferation of affordable manufactured play equipment and the creation of playgrounds that were safer, more accessible, and relatively easy to implement on a wide scale. However, although designers were committed to creating playgrounds that were fun and safe, this sometimes came at the expense of a more well-rounded play experience.

Check back soon for details on specific design strategies for the creation of play environments. We will address various issues such as context arrangement; incorporating graduated physical challenges; encouraging social integration with side-by-side play; and how to use varied scales and materials to enrich the play experience. Case study analyses and citations of specific design solutions will show how to apply these strategies, and there will be discussion of outcomes, both desired and unexpected.

Four Hills 13.jpg

Four Hills Village Park, Albuquerque

Landscape architects and their allied professionals can help municipalities utilize limited resources in ways that maximize results, while coping with smaller budgets and fewer staff. Creating exciting, inviting parks and play environments that appeal to the largest possible number of residents and visitors is a way to bring greater social and economic vitality to any community.

We look forward to your questions and comments!

For more on Play Environments go to Part 2 and Part 3.

Tags: News, playgound design, nature play, inclusivity, parks


Greg Miller


Immediate Past President of ASLA National and little league baseball coach. If he wasn't mixing art and science as a landscape architect, he'd be mixing ingredients as a chef.