Design an inviting and challenging outdoor play space

Kim Cooke and Kay Lockhart from Kidsafe NSW explore the benefits of outdoor play and how services can add value to their spaces while still being safe and compliant.

Are you thinking about how to get more play value from your current outdoor play space? It may be time to refurbish or redesign.

Outdoor play spaces should entice children to learn and grow through exploration, unstructured play and social collaboration. Creating inviting and challenging play spaces is certainly a balancing act for educators!

Where to start

Decide on a partial refurbishment of a specific area or redesign of the entire space. The budget should include consideration of design, planning, stages of construction and any ongoing maintenance.

Things to consider in the design process may include:

  • Who will use the space.
  • The type of landscape - natural and/or artificial.
  • Consultation with the children, educators and families.
  • Sharing of ideas with other educators or services to see what works well.

Key design principles

  • Make sure your design and equipment purchases comply with the relevant Australian Standards and obtain documented evidence of compliance.
  • If budget allows, appoint a landscape architect who specialises in play spaces for education and care services.
  • Contact Kidsafe NSW for design advice and to discuss a review of your plans prior to construction.
  • Ensure the play space is accessible for everyone.
  • Develop a Playground Safety Management System.

Adding play value to design

Providing children with challenging, adventurous, ‘risky’ play is valuable and can be a lot more fun! Children can learn to navigate their environment and learn how to assess risks and contemplate consequences.

When designing a play space, it is vital to include a variety of play areas, that is, choices for all children regardless of age, ability, needs and interests. These may include the following design elements:

Active Space – Including both fixed and movable equipment, for example, slides, climbing structures, balancing items. A variety of heights and access points creates more choices and challenges. These items help children develop their core and upper body strength, balance, and gross and fine motor muscle development.

Open Space – Provides opportunities for running, jumping, rolling, ball play and organised games.

Quiet Space – Not all children want to be active. Providing a quiet space facilitates calmness, solitude and time out. A place to read a book alone, or with a friend, is important.

Social Space – Children are naturally social beings and areas such as a platform or stage can be transformed by the addition of loose parts or props, enhancing imagination and social opportunities.

Creative Space – Facilitating open ended, unstructured opportunities to be creative is invaluable. A range of materials, resources and loose parts encourages children to create, design and construct. They use their imagination and cognitive abilities to invent and engineer, mastering their own creations. This type of learning reinforces independence and develops a sense of accomplishment.

Exploration Space – Providing sand pits, digging patches, sensory gardens, frog ponds, magnifying glasses, binoculars, all provoke children’s curiosity and encourage exploration. If we can stimulate curiosity we are encouraging a child’s innate passion for life-long learning.

Nature Space – Interacting with nature is crucial in today’s hectic over-scheduled lifestyles. Being amongst nature provides wellness benefits, both mentally and physically for everyone.

To care, nurture, find wonder in, and connect with nature, is vitally important if we want to teach children to be loving and caring towards the world around them. We want to teach our children to be stewards of their natural world. Nature-conscious children assist with developing sustainability principles in the education and care setting. Learning about bushes, bees and bugs in a natural bush setting or a purpose built nature-like environment teaches children about the value of their environment and inspires them to protect it.

Risk and reward

A risk assessment identifies potential hazards, determines the level of risk and then aids in the development of relevant strategies to provide safe, rewarding experiences for children. The removal of all risk is not always the best outcome. Offering challenging situations to allow opportunities for children to learn and develop is fundamental.

New experiences and environments should be assessed for suitability, for example:

  • Develop a comprehensive list of benefits children will gain from the experience.
  • Investigate and analyse potential risks.
  • Incorporate management strategies to address each potential risk.
  • Regularly review and record incidents/near misses as a part of a systematic evaluation.

Talking through this process with educators and children is useful to help them understand the thinking behind these decisions. For example, when talking to children about tree climbing, discuss why a certain tree was chosen, how high to climb and which branches to choose. This models to children how they can assess risks and what is best for them.

Beyond design – inspections and maintenance

Once you have created your exciting new play space you will need to have a comprehensive post installation playground inspection prior to use. This verifies compliance with the relevant Australian Standards and checks for general safety and operational issues. By inspecting and properly maintaining a play space, educators can manage potential hazards to children and preserve the condition of the play space.

The types and frequency of inspections are detailed in AS 4685.0:2017 Playground equipment and surfacing and range from daily, quarterly or annually.

Contact Kidsafe NSW for more information (contact details below).

It is important to evaluate and monitor your new space regularly to ensure that it is maintained as safe and exciting. Remember to ask the children what they enjoy most about their new play space!

For more information

Contact Kidsafe NSW

Kim Cooke, Manager Kidsafe NSW Playground Advisory Unit

P: 02 9845 0899

M: 0447 636 818


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