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What is a School Playground Design?

Definitions, Approaches, and Why It’s Important.

School playground design… is it necessary? Building a school playground is just a matter of filling a box with bark and installing some play equipment, right?

While this has been the predominant approach to creating school playgrounds in New Zealand for the last 30 years, mindsets are changing, and new conceptions of playground design are gaining ground.

So, what is playground design? Who does it? And why is it important?


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Playground design enables schools to incorporate their own themes into their play spaces.
Playground design enables schools to incorporate their own themes into their play spaces.

What is school playground design and how does it differ from other types of playground design?

Playground design is the process of gathering lots of ideas for a play space, and arranging them in the best possible way to maximise the use of the site, the available budget, and above all, the playability and play value of the space.

This results in a visual concept, on paper or in a computer program, of what the playground will look like. One that describes the features, the flow, and other proposed elements of the playground to determine how they will work together to meet the needs of the people who will use it.

The school playground environment is a unique one and as such there are some special considerations to be made before embarking on a school playground design project. It is important to consider how many children will use the playground, the specific age ranges and abilities of the children, and the range of play types and learning opportunities that will be offered.

Numbers of users

Where public playgrounds tend to cater to small groups of children, perhaps 20-30 at any one time, school playgrounds need to provide play for many more – sometimes up to 300-400 children at one time. To provide play for such high numbers of children, our school playground designers look to utilise play equipment that can be used by many children at once and in multiple ways. Items such as monkey bars, basket swings, crow’s nest climbing towers, and large spinners fit the bill here.

Age and ability levels

Another way school playground design differs from other types of playground design is in the age and ability levels catered for. Public playgrounds tend to focus on offering a broad range of play options for all ages and abilities. School playgrounds, on the other hand, tend to have a much narrower scope as far as age and ability levels are concerned. We use this information to ensure that equipment is age-appropriate and fits the physical abilities of the children using it.

Thematic Approaches

The other major difference between designing a school playground and a public one is in what could be termed, thematic approach. School playgrounds tend to focus on themes of development, growth, and learning, whereas, public playgrounds are often associated with themes of leisure and recreation. This divergence in thematic approaches can be seen in the types of equipment most often used in each type of playground. Equipment in school playgrounds, for instance, tends to encourage active participation rather than leisure. Monkey bars and painted on-ground games are common in schools compared to more passive equipment such as swing sets and flying foxes commonly seen in public playgrounds.

Playground funding

One last consideration worth mentioning is that of budget. Schools often don’t have the budget for playground design, equipment, and construction that councils do. However, increased government funding in recent years has taken a major leap forward and this situation is changing for the better.

Borrowing from the physical and social sciences

School playgrounds must meet the learning and physical developmental needs of the students who use them. Because of this, our school playground designers borrow heavily from the fields of developmental psychology and exercise physiology to inform their school playground designs. With a multi-disciplinary approach, playground designers can create fit for purpose playspaces that cater to large numbers of children and offer a wide range of play and learning opportunities and, above all, provide a fun welcoming space.

Who does school playground design?

In most cases, playground designs are undertaken by accredited Landscape Architects – qualified professionals who are experienced in designing for outdoor spaces.

When choosing a Landscape Architect, it is important to ensure they have specific experience designing playgrounds. In New Zealand, there are many Landscape Architects who can design a beautiful space, but there are only a few who have hands-on experience designing for play.

Furthermore, while there is currently no accreditation requirement for playground designers in New Zealand, there is a playground standard (NZS5825:2015) that must be followed. For this reason, it is important that playground designers have a thorough, working knowledge of the standard.

Check out our “Where Do I Start?” video to find out more about the Creo Process

What are the advantages of getting a school playground design?

There are many benefits of getting a playground design including:

  1. Ensures diversity of play type
  2. Increases play value to provide more play and learning opportunities
  3. Better flow through the playspace
  4. Spreads play out across the entire site
  5. Maximises budget giving best ‘bang for buck’
  6. Allows School to incorporate values and stories into the playspace
  7. Gives the optimal balance of play equipment
  8. Activates spaces that would otherwise be underutilised
  9. Helps Schools develop a shared vision for their space
  10. Brings many ideas together in a cohesive plan
  11. Provides spaces that fit together to meet the School’s needs
  12. Gives the School something that is uniquely theirs

What’s involved in getting a school playground design?

While we can’t comment on the processes of other school playground designers, we can outline our own.

The Creo process generally starts with a discussion between the School Principal and one of our Playspace Consultants. This meeting could also include key staff, Board of Trustees members, or parent committee members via a Zoom meeting.

This initial discussion is centred around getting all the ideas out on the table, finding out the needs of the School, and generating a wish list of ideas to take into the design phase.

At this point we may have enough information to proceed with a playspace design, but if not, we will come to site to assess the playspace area. From there, one of our Landscape Architects will generate a design for the playspace. Depending on the difficulty, this can take between 1-3 weeks. Once the design is complete, we send you a narrated walk-through video that shows the design and outlines its features. From there, we meet again to go over the indicative costs of building the playspace and to discuss any further requirements you may have.

Once you are happy with the design of your playground, we can build it for you too. This ability to both design and build playgrounds is one of the unique benefits Creo offer schools.

How much does a school playground design cost?

Because each playspace design is unique, it is difficult to give exact figures on costs. However, it is not uncommon to see design fees in the order of $10,000 – $20,000 dollars or more on some projects.

Because Creo is a ‘full service’ playground company, our project overhead costs are lower than those on projects where multiple contractors are involved. Because of this, we can offer much lower design fees.

Plus, with our single point of contact approach to communication, our clients enjoy a much smoother journey from design through to delivery.

Find our more about the cost of a playground in our video “How much does a School Playground Cost?”


If you want to talk to someone or get further clarification on any of these, feel free to give us a call on 0800 000 334 or flick us an email.



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