Small outdoor playgrounds

Designing playgrounds for small spaces

Play is fundamental to the needs of children, especially in the early years, but schools built on smaller sites have a particular problem in providing adequate space for play. Prue Walsh explains how to make the absolute best of what you have. 

The importance of play

Image credit: Pentagon Play, UK – Click on the image to follow the link

Outdoor play plays a critical role in learning, particularly during the critical formative year from birth to 6 years when the foundations for later development are establish. During this period of their lives children need comprehensive learning opportunities for all aspects of their development―social, emotional and intellectual.

Busy social play, physical exercise, sharing and collaboration with other children are all essential and making the best use of space in which this can happen is therefore vital.

The problem of limited space

In reality many children and teachers are confronted with limited space, particularly on urban sites, outside older buildings which have been converted to educational use, in temporary facilities or in a school where numbers are simply growing.  Although the provision of larger play spaces should always be a priority, having limited space does not mean that children cannot still have a degree of outdoor play―preferably as a short-term measure.

In finding a solution, one must never lose sight of the fact that meeting children’s needs is the first priority and this requires the careful assessment of  all the space available that can help create workable, enjoyable play areas.  Here are a few suggestions for what can be done, hopefully as an interim measure before more space can be found!

Three useful principles
  1. In making the most of what you have, look at the potential spaces for play as well as existing spaces designated for play, especially if these spaces are not currently being fully utilised.  Don’t be afraid to think big and creatively maximise the potential space.
  2. Look for a space that can be maximised and that interrelates with the indoor and outdoor areas, so that younger children can readily access space under the supervision of staff.
  3. Look at the siting of the space.  No one wants a playground next to a busy road belching fumes, in constant cold shade or the boiling heat.
Tips for play in really tight spots

1. Think about how a small space can be softened and made a more visually attractive area – even a bleak passage way. Don’t waste any space! In a particularly tight spot, this can mean planting in window or wall boxes to create a more inviting place to sit down and play with smaller toys.

2. Use a blank wall where art and chalk boards at child height enable papers to be clipped on for drawing and painting etc.

3. In a narrow space between buildings, put up shelter commensurate with the area – shaded with pergolas and vines or a fixed shelter over hot areas.

4. If the space is big enough, why not include an animal hutch where rabbits or other transportable animals can be brought in for the children to enjoy, tend and feed.

5.  Place a minimal few items in the space to extend children’s usage―perhaps water, some logs or benches for children to sit on, a slippery slide set into an embankment with flat topped boulders set against the side of the slide for children to climb up and down.

6.  Put in a patterned paved surface in a walkway area – or a perhaps a boardwalk or stepping stones through a planted space.

If you have slightly more space

1. Increase the planting in the area by either constructing raised garden beds or using portable pots for planting programmes with children (e.g. herbs, flowers).

2. Recycle what in some situations is considered waste material such as rubber tyres packed with sand and filled with sandy loam soil and a tap nearby.  To work, this will need to take into account the number of children who will be playing in this area so the facilities meet their needs.

Image Credit: Nature Playgrounds WA

3. Include a slightly shallow bowl in a drainage area to allow for water play to occur in hot weather.

4. Design a “sunken pit play area” where children and teachers can add portable play items if they wish.

5. Think of the potential of creating a natural play space with gentle natural landform, soft surfaces, places to explore where children have the option to climb, scramble upon or tread areas where the space can be opened up underneath.

6. But most importantly of all – install a tap (or pump!)  immediately adjoining this space so that all areas have access to water.


Prue Walsh

Prue is a freelance play specialist, based in Brisbane Australia.

The second edition of her classic design manual, Early Childhood Playgrounds: planning an outside learning environment was published in 2016 and can be ordered from

or if you are living in Australia click on the book cover below to order from Booktopia.







Image Credit:

Feature Image: Pixabay


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