I’ve long admired this small-town playground by German landscape architect Stefan Laport for the lessons it holds for small playgrounds (backyards, schools, churches) everywhere.  It’s a simple arrangement of elements that can be adapted to a variety of sites, styles, and budgets.

1.  Start with a hill!   Playgrounds-should-not-be-flat, remember, and when in doubt start with a hill as the organizing feature of any playscape.  Make it as big as your site and budget allows; a bigger hill is also great for bikes and winter sports.

2.  Add different ways to go up and down the hill.  The Hornbach playground has an enticing set of large and small boulders that allow different routes, and also conveniently serve as benches on the lower part of the hill.  A child can also just scramble/bike/sled up and down the grassy sides, or creep up through the shrubberies.  Other options could be a stump scramble, or a rope-banister to pull up on hand-over-hand, or  a flying fox with which to descend.    The slide descent could also be varied according to the size and slope of the hill;  this same sort of arrangement would work wonderfully with a wide multi-user slide, for example.

3.  Make a feature on top of the hill.  To a small child, the hill is a big challenge and there should be something at the top worthy of the climb.  The house on the top of the Hornbach hill appropriately references the historic shapes and stoneworks of the monastery town.  But you can easily see how it could be replaced by a house with a completely different local reference  (like a log house, in certain American contexts), or by a far more contemporary design (an avant-garde playhouse that doesn’t necessarily even look like a house, or a playable sculpture), and could be more  or less expensive as budget dictates.

4.  Spill sand at the bottom of the hill.    The playground started in the sandpit, and sand both honors this history and the fact that sand and loose parts play are still essential on the playground.  The sandpit could also have boulders and stumps, or a water feature, or a small balance beam,  or any number of other features, and can be larger or smaller as necessary, but should always have loose parts available!

This mini-formula for a playspace can be carried out at less expense and difficulty than a set of standardized equipment, but note that this design by no means excludes them completely; it integrates easily with the addition of things like swings for dynamic motion or a net climber for upper body development, or adventure and natural playground elements like a den-building area or a felled tree.    I”d love to see more small schools, day-care centers, and churches use this ‘house on a hill’  playscape as a model, adapting it for their needs and local context,  instead of defaulting to a catalogue purchase.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY

This compact playscape in San Francisco’s historic Presidio manages to tick alot of boxes in a small space:  rolling topography with circuitous paths, a circular meeting space for outdoor class, an inspiring play house, natural elements, appropriate plantings and loose parts play via the creative use of cardboard tubing!  Plus an appropriate use of equipment.  And all within a strong design framework for the space, which so many school playgrounds lack.  Admirably done by surface design. 

“…the landscape architect designed play features to support the Reggio Emilia approach and to recall bay area landscapes: the “beach” sand pit; the play “forest;” a grassy “Headland” mound; and a giant “telephone,” constructed from a large remnant drainage pipe. Carved out from the center of the Headlands, the designers created a room of rammed earth, recalling the forms of historic defense bunkers found at the water’s edge of the Presidio. Tree cookie pavers, cut from fallen Eucalyptus trees in the Presidio provide students to create their own games and to create paths through the school yard.  Material selection and planting for the project was informed by the educational objectives of the playground and by the planting and preservation guidelines of the Presidio Trust. Plants are drought-tolerant and native and materials are natural, biodegradable or reclaimed.”

[found at architypesource:   photos from surface design.]

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY

During London Open for Play, I photographed (again!)  the wooden blocks for construction play at the Kate Greenaway Nursery playscape.

They reminded me of the Alexander Kemp playground in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It was given a complete redesign in 2009, converting a staid equipment-based playground to a playscape including “a dragon boat, water games, a group swing, gardens,  natural woods, covered areas, its own hill,  a fantasy area, and  sand everywhere”, according to the New Cambridge Observer.  But a mom from Cambridge who wrote to me said that actually the blocks were the most popular thing there.

And finally, this charming photo of  blocks used for construction at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown Massachusetts, c. 1940 (see the other lovely playground photos on their flickr account, too!).  I love the larger size of these blocks.

A reminder, if you needed one, that loose parts play is essential, but it needn’t be be expensive!


Posted in 1900-1950

There is more than one way to build a den, and I love the tents constructed by Noa Meir and Tali Buchler, whose playful design work has been featured here at Playscapes before.

The idea behind this art installation was to bring back craft and the love of making to the local community. By gathering and knitting the tent, a community based on the love of handcraft was formed. 

Every Wednesday for 3 months kids, parents and grandparents got together at the local community center to finger knit ropes from left over lycra scraps brought from a local factory. The ropes were tied to 3 nesting rings made of watering pipes, forming circus-like shaped tents. The tents were hung from a large ficus tree located in a public garden in the center of town, adjacent to a synagogue called Jacob’s Tent (we found that out after installing the tent). We hung a total of 3 tents, all independent of one another but close enough that spinning one would start the movement of  another.

The hovering tents formed a space that encouraged passersby to stop, engage with the tents and play. A public garden that was hardly ever occupied now became a desirable place to be.”

A beautiful project, like a playhouse that swings!  Tali is going to provide some detailed instructions for us, so watch this space.

[photography by Nirit-Gur Karby]


Posted in Contemporary Design, Play DIY, Playable Sculpture

I’ve talked before on the blog about making provisions for den-building, which can be as simple as providing a three-point frame or a pole that the kids can lean branches against and attach tent materials to.

I also like the slightly more complex approach of Copper Beech Landscaping in the UK, who suspend forked branches between uprights to make a structure that can be climbed on or bounded with sticks for long tunnel-like dens.

Oftentimes natural playscape builders are looking for a large felled tree to lay in a sandpit; this is a great way to utilize smaller treeforms in a structure that is just as visually appealing and has, I think, even more play value.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY

One of the things I wish I could bring you more of on the blog is how much projects cost, but I often simply can’t access that information.   So I really appreciate Alexa Uhrich of Skala Design in Vancouver providing me with the expenses of their project to help those of you planning a natural playscape or classroom garden.

“Generous donations were received from the surrounding community. Douglas Fir logs were supplied and delivered by the Vancouver School Board and the boulders were sourced from an adjacent construction site and delivered free of charge to site by Ventana Construction. A special thank you was also extended to local real estate agent Paul Eviston for his contribution by means of a stone carving.”

Communities are often very willing to donate to playground projects, but we need to question why we’re asking them for $50,000-$100,000 when a space like this was developed for under $9,000?   To be fair, there was ‘equipment’ already available at the school, so this installation didn’t even require swings or slides, which should not be neglected in even the most natural of playgrounds.

Project Costs:
$6,763: School Board construction crew costs for demolition, base preparation, supply and installation of timber edging, bark mulch pathways, topsoil and composted mulch, planting, placement of Douglas-fir logs and placement of boulders using truck crane.
$935: Supply and delivery of plants from a local nursery.
$500: Stone carving to thank donor.
$500: Grant from Evergreen (www.evergreen.ca) that went toward purchase of native plants.
The total project construction cost was under $9,000

“As the garden has grown over the last two years, its play value has increased. Kids play hide and seek inside mature native shrubs, dig holes to compost their recess snacks and use the boulders and logs to play games. One of the wonderful things that has been observed in the garden is that kids of all ages play together and often choose to play in this space rather than on nearby equipment.”

I love that they compost their snacks!

[all photos from Skala Design]

Posted in Natural Playgrounds

And before we leave the subject of swings…I like this construction from the ideo headquarters in Santa Cruz California which is supported by leaning against a wall and combines the swings with ladders and a loft.  This is intended for grown-ups, so it would may (according to play risk expert Tim Gill!) need some modifications (like a railing and checking the swing arc) for kids, but it’s a great idea;  particularly useful for a small space where there isn’t enough room for a traditional A-frame swing set.  Very DIYable…if you make something similar be sure to let me know!  [source]

Posted in Play DIY

I really like the simplicity of this stacked stone feature at the Cinco Ranch Natural Playground in Katy, Texas.  It provides well for climbing, hiding, jumping and even performance play.  The formal look that the cut stone provides is better suited to some settings than the boulders more commonly found on natural playgrounds.  Simple…as long as you have some heavy equipment!  By Austin-based Studio TBG.

Posted in Natural Playgrounds

Temporary installations, like the Fairy Houses and Forts exhibition at Powell Gardens in Kansas City, running from May 19 til October 7, are a great opportunity to explore new interpretations of old classics like the playhouse.
The Light Wings Pavilion by DA+UD is constructed of otherwise unusable 2×4 drops, a common waste product of any construction site, to make a larger structure reminiscent of Thoughtbarn’s Playhive.  Cut-outs in the roof and walls cast illuminated fairy wings into the space; children can interact with the light, imagining themselves with their own fairy wings.

Denise DiPiazzo of Red Trike Studios built a icy cool house bisected by a tunnel.

Kelly Cook and George Berry created a Fairy Outpost, using many found and natural materials.  I love the addition of community chalkboards!

LaMair Design Studio, Inc. built a pyramid from recycled wood, peeled log poles and translucent plastic “jewels” that filter soft light into the interior.

And Norwegian Wood built a fort that hides in plain sight…from mirrored safety glass.  The top of its tower has a giant periscope for viewing the treescape, and there are small holes in the glass for spy viewing.

[All photos of these great projects are via the Powell Gardens website; I couldn’t find website information for the project designers.  If you have them, please let me know!  First found at the Architect’s Newspaper blog.]


Posted in Contemporary Design

When you’re designing your playscape, don’t neglect the hardscape that can make the space feel comfortable, permanent,  and settled into its site.  Always question whether a fence is truly necessary (often it isn’t), or whether another way of providing ‘boundary’ is more useful and more functional as well…one way of handling the perimeter of your site is to make it a bench.

I really like the constructions of ‘Bankinzicht’ from the Netherlands (their site is in Dutch, see an English translation via google translate) by two gardeners who make, among other things, ‘natural nurseries’ and have a particular predilection for constructing benches from discarded building rubble.

“The seats are for the most part made ​​with materials that were released during the construction of a garden. The foundation usually consists of several layers of gravel tiles. Subsequent layers are stacked in a mosaic structure and supplemented with specific details of pottery, glass, or “found objects”. In the pile and brickwork much room is left for planting. Kenilworth Ivy, Thyme and Yellow Corydalis species are fun and add color and scent. It is also possible to integrate the bench with a pool of water or a wooden seat.”

I love the way their benches incorporate things like marbles and old pieces of pottery and have plenty of niches for hiding treasures or parking a toy car.

And note how the circular patterns of the benches at one of their ‘natural nurseries’ provide for the ‘retreat spaces’ previously discussed on the blog as a design feature to prevent playground bullying. Hooray for Bankinzicht!


Posted in Natural Playgrounds

Playscapes friend Tim Gill has just posted about the den-building provisions on the playground of Berwick Fields Primary school in England (Australia, oops!)  which you’ll want to read.   Kids have always built playhouses out of whatever materials they can find around, of course.  But a key to encouraging this behavior, whether in a multi-user playspace or in your own backyard, is to provide a simple pole or a frame to help the constructions stand up.

Den poles and frames are a simple addition to any play space; then just let the children gather their own sticks and branches and build away.

Note that Tim’s post also gives some  insight into the management of dens on a school playground:  “the only rule is that dens have to be demolished at the end of each session. This is to allow more children to take part. Before the rule was introduced, children were starting to get territorial about their cubbies.”

Unlike the more permanent constructs allowed at adventure playgrounds, play dens typically don’t last long.  So they’re ideal for documenting at diy.org, a beautiful new site and app well-summarized as an ‘online refrigerator for kids artwork’, (see also a discussion of the diy project at c/net).  Several play  projects have already been posted…I really like the idea of kids being able to document their ephemeral, outdoor play creations in this way!


Posted in Natural Playgrounds, Play DIY

Longtime Playscapes readers know that the playground began with the sandbox.  This historic example (1922) of a backyard sandpit is from the photography of Frances Benjamin Johnston in the stunning new book Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935.  By Sam Watters in collaboration with the Library of Congress, published by Acanthus Press.

Posted in 1900-1950

The word ‘playscape’ was invented around 1959 to define a landscape type that was a completely designed space for play, not just the sets of equipment with which the word ‘playground’ had become definitively associated.  It was in keeping with that definition that I chose ‘playscapes’ as the title for this blog, though since 1959 the word has been used in a variety of ways, to apply to a variety of play spaces.

We’re now seeing the rise of a new word–‘naturescape’–that further seeks to distinguish spaces for play in which natural features are paramount.  Like ‘playscape’ the word will probably be used in many ways, and without a strict definition, but it is a useful linguistic device, I think, and shows how much exciting innovation is occurring in defining what used to be called the ‘playground’.    So much that we need new words.

Especially since the new play area at King’s Park in Perth Australia has specifically asked us *not* to call it a playground.

“This area is not a playground. It has been designed to retain as much of its natural bush setting as possible. The project brings back a level of challenge, adventure and connection to nature that has been missing from many urban childhoods.

Great care has been taken to provide children with a real ‘bush’ experience in the middle of our city. This is carefully balanced with providing inspiring design and high quality amenities to enhance the visitor experience.

Rio Tinto Naturescape Kings Park covers 60,000 square metres and incorporates a series of unique zones including hidden thickets, a creek, lookouts, a cubby building area, upside-down trees and a wetland. These areas are connected by meandering paths, boardwalks and bridges which offer a feeling of immersion in the bush.”

I particularly like the water features, including a massive stone block ‘spring’ (big enough to wade in!) with small water holes for mud play, and the sensible and humorous approach to playground safety evidenced by the safety signs:

Two Australian kid-focused bloggers visited the Naturescape (here and here), judging it the best play space in Perth! The photos in this post are from their insightful reviews, credit Alec Duncan and Niki Buchan.

I couldn’t find information on who the architects/designers for this project were; if you know please tell me so I can credit them.

Thanks to reader Jennifer for submitting this!


Posted in Natural Playgrounds
Also in the spirit of encouraging you to make your own playscapes, I’m pleased to announce the second title in my effort to make vintage playground classics available again…Paul Friedberg’s Handcrafted Playgrounds from 1975.  Its best description is contained in the book’s own foreword:

“Handcrafted Playgrounds is a sketchbook of designs based on two very simple premises: anyone can build a playground, and the actual process of building it can be as important as the finished product. 

It gives the builders (who should certainly include the children for whom it is planned) a chance to shape their environment, to create something to answer their specific needs. 

All settings, urban, suburban, and rural, are rich in natural and man-made materials suitable for play.  Every child, wherever he or she lives and whatever space is available, can have an exciting playground. All it takes is a little imagination.”

Paul (see an online bio at the Cultural Landscape Foundation) is best known in playgrounds for his innovative 1970s installations in New York City, in which he utilized what were then completely new forms for play:   massive timber constructs, concrete forts that resembled ancient pyramids, and vest-pocket play spaces in trash-strewn vacant lots before temporary parklets were cool.    (See a 2007 article by Deborah Bishop in dwell magazine for photos of Friedberg’s 1970s work, from which the three photos below are taken.)  UPDATE:  Paul has let me know that the last two images are actually the work of Richard Dattner…apologies for the misidentification, but don’t worry,  Dattner’s own book Design for Play will be released on Playscapes soon!

Friedberg was one of first to realize the ideas embodied in the new word ‘playscape’ as discrete from ‘playground’:  a fully three-dimensional landscape space in which purpose-designed components worked together to provide an integrated play experience.

This book reflects that, offering build-it-yourself plans for everything from bridges to benches, spring toys to sprinklers, that can be put together to create a comprehensive play area.   Most are  made from timber, some from tires or other recycled materials like spools and water tanks.

Handcrafted Playgrounds is currently selling for over $100 on amazon, but now you can get a digital copy through playscapes for just $6!

Please remember that this book is still under copyright protection.  Once you’ve downloaded the file it is yours, just like a physical book is, to print or loan if you wish but not to copy and hand out.

I’ve purchased publication rights and must also pay royalties; your respect for the time and expense of the original copyright holder as well as my own is very much appreciated. (If you need to convert the pdf to other ebook formats like epub or mobi, try Calibre, which is a free download).

Purchase Handcrafted Playgrounds digital download for $6 USD via Paypal


Posted in Mid-Century Modern, Play DIY, Resources

Austin, Texas based design studio thoughtbarn constructed an artful playhouse based on a beehive for a wildfire benefit in their city.  Their unique construction, which children can not only play in but also climb around on both inside and out, requires only 2x4s, a drill and a chopsaw (and some patience, but don’t all good things?)  And now full plans are available for download to Playscapes readers!

Licensed once again by a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution, so do please give credit and don’t attempt to make money off this, amazing as it is.  To help you on your way, there are additional photos of construction and installation at the thoughtbarn blog and the thoughtbarn flickr page.

Once again, all I ask is that you send me pics of your very own Playhives, and leave thank-yous for the great folks at thoughtbarn.  Think of the Playhive combined with the terrain and planting suggestions from space2place.…amazing.  Go out and make a playscape!



Posted in Play DIY, Resources