Recess is an essential part of keeping kids healthy and active. For many children, it’s the only time of their day that’s entirely unstructured. How they choose to spend that time helps them mentally decompress and refocus once they reenter the classroom. A misbehaving kid that bounces with energy in the class doesn’t need his recess taken away as a punishment — he needs it more than anyone else.
Students use recess to make their own rules, exercise their creativity and determine their own schedule. They get the responsibility of shaping their own time. Children consider play serious business, so they do not take this responsibility lightly. They develop communication and social skills, both vital parts of elementary education.
Your students’ playground has a significant role in their development. But, what do you do when the current playground fails to meet the needs of every student?
In this guide, we’ve compiled a list of 12 ways to make your school’s playground more fun — even if you’re on a budget.
How to Improve a School Playground
A playground should work on behalf of students to fulfill these four goals:
- Increase physical activity and fitness levels
- Improve focus in class
- Enhance cognitive learning
- Develop social and emotional skills
Enhancing your school playground doesn’t have to cost a fortune. To stay within your budget and work toward the necessary goals, you must exercise creativity and planning.
To increase the success of investing in the future of the students’ play area, assess the current needs of the playground. Take the time to understand what students, guardians and teachers need and look for in the space.
Before you start spending money, you need to ask yourself these questions, so you know how best to allocate your resources:
- What students use the play area? Who is the playground intended for? Who actively uses the play area when given the opportunity? Which students don’t participate during recess? Why do they choose not to play? How can improvements to the playground better meet their needs?
- How can we make the play area accessible for everyone? Not everyone who uses the playground has the same level of ability and fitness needs. Can students who use wheelchairs navigate across the playground? Can students with cerebral palsy use any of the equipment safely? Make sure you think of every student when renovating the schoolyard, so everyone can safely enjoy the space together. Inclusivity during unstructured time is vital for everyone. Students with other abilities deserve to have a playground that works for them. Students who don’t require those adaptations need to play alongside those other students to see that, when everyone has the tools they need to succeed, everyone can participate and have fun together. When everyone gets included, students will see all the other kids as just another person who wants to have fun.
- What is our budget? Do we have a fixed number we can’t exceed? Can we raise money to invest in superior equipment to better aid in the children’s development? What school playground additions can you make on a budget?
- How can we better serve the four principles of recess? Does the playground cognitively challenge students? Can they exercise their emotional and social skills? Are they staying physically active? Do they leave the playground refocused and ready to embrace the classroom?
- What age does the play area cater to the least? Are the monkey bars too high for kindergartners to use safely? Is there not a high enough for older children to enjoy the space?
- Is the foundation of the play area safe and ADA accessible? Is the play area still using blacktop or wood chips? Is there a safer alternative? Can students with wheelchairs safely navigate the ground to participate in play with everyone else?
- Is the area modern and in line with current student interests? Some playground suppliers now offer pieces that include electronic elements that give the playground the feeling of a real-life video game. Students who are less interested in outdoor activities might engage with the equipment more often if they see similarities between it and gaming.
Ask the kids directly what they would like to see, but also watch the playground while in use. You’ll observe things the kids won’t verbalize or assess for themselves.
Is there a long line for a particular feature while others go untouched? Do students spend more time waiting for the slide than they do staying physically active? Does the teeter-totter stay empty for the duration of recess? Is there a group of children sitting around because nothing on the playground fits their level of ability?
Taking the time to observe the used playground will give you a better understanding of how to meet the current needs of the space. You should certainly consult parents and teachers. But ultimately, the kids should be the driving force behind any renovations because they are the ones that will use it every day.
To get you inspired to start reshaping your school’s playground, we compiled a list of ideas and fun school playground trends for you to try:
1. Add Traditional Game Markings
You can inexpensively encourage structured playtime on flat surfaces by permanently painting outlines for different games. Whether it’s something traditional like hopscotch or something more nuanced like snakes and ladders, here are some markings you could use to freshen up the school playground:
- Tic-Tac-Toe: Kids can easily play this game by filling the boxes in with chalk or giant playing pieces.
- Checkers: You could paint this board on the ground for giant checkers, or atop a picnic table so kids can sit and play. Pair these with appropriately sized pieces.
- Four Square: This game only requires a large painted square divided into four quadrants and a large ball kids can bounce. You can simplify the game for younger kids, or older students could use the official tournament rules.
- Long Jump: Paint the foot outline for kids to start on and then draw out two and a half meters with measuring ticks, so students can see how far they jumped.
- Snakes and Ladders: You can play the classic shoots and ladders game with just a painted pattern and giant die. The kids play as their own pieces, which adds another element of fun. The game accommodates multiple players and skill levels.
- Paths and Roads: Just drawing arbitrary roads and pathways for students to follow on their own allows them to use their imagination and create their own games. For a fun custom option, name the paths after the roads they travel to get to school.
After you paint the lines, make sure the teacher shows the kids how to use each of the spaces. Give the students ideas on how to get creative with the new games available to them.
These lines invite more game-play into the schoolyard without a substantial investment. Watching whether they get used or not in the weeks after painting will give you better insight into what kids look for in their play areas.
2. Zoning Your Current Spaces
Dividing and designating your play areas gives you better control over the safety of the schoolyard. If you section off different areas for different activities, you both encourage the use of currently unused spaces and make sure a kid using the swings won’t get hit by a stray football. Taking stock of the different parts of the area and understanding which spaces are popular can give you a better idea of how you can reimagine current spaces for various activities.
Here are some ideas for different zones:
- Field sports
- Free play
- Socialization space
- Jungle gym
- Seating area
- Swings and slides
- Performance zones
- Mindfulness spaces
- Natural elements
Sometimes students will create their own unofficial zones, so make sure you understand the unspoken areas of the playground as determined by the kids before you rework the space.
3. Consider the Needs of Guardians, Monitors and Teachers
When monitoring the children, where do the teachers, monitors and parents usually sit? If there is no designated space for the adults to occupy, they may not have the proper vantage point to make sure students use the equipment safely. Remember that students will rarely use the space unsupervised, especially not during school hours. Make sure the person in charge of the students’ safety has a space to sit and see the whole park.
Consider adding a covering to protect the sitting individuals from the elements. A cover can give shade in the spring, protection from the rain and can block out some wind in the colder months.
Proper seating also gives children a space to rest if they’ve overexerted themselves while playing. A reliable source of shade can be particularly advantageous if a student starts overheating.
4. Prioritize and Make Improvements Gradually
How do you update your school playground on a budget? Some companies offer the option to pay in phases with a financing or leasing program. By working in stages, you can reevaluate the needs and direction of the project as your budget becomes clearer. You can determine the best place to allocate funds as you see which parts the kids get most excited about.
Taking this approach is easier on your budget but also allows the children to continue using the playground if you only improve one area at a time.
If the kids watch the playground grow gradually, they get the opportunity to become emotionally invested in the project. If the playground shuts down for repairs, they’ll be disappointed and upset, and might resent the project if they’re about to graduate from that school. When the kids get to use the rest of the playground and watch the daily progress, their enthusiasm may inspire more community members to donate, which could increase the scale of the project. Before you know it, you’ll be able to make your school playground like new.
5. Focus on Offering Variety
Not every kid has the same preferences or needs when it comes to playground use. By only offering one type of stimulation, you’re only catering to some children’s preferences and ability levels. When adding new equipment, make sure it is something that your playground does not already offer. Diversify the different play and cognitive challenges available on the playground, so the students can continue to grow and learn in new ways.
6. Add Natural Elements
While some schools are located in a more natural area, other playgrounds are centered in a more urban space. Adding small features like a colorful planter or permanent logs gives the space a more natural feel. Having the ability to spend time in natural spaces is integral to a child’s development.
Trees bring another source of shade for kids taking a break from playing. If you don’t have space for trees, adding bushes and various shrubbery could add the elements of greenery you’re looking for.
While more creativity is required for adding natural elements into urban spaces, it’s arguably more important to incorporate nature into those spaces.
7. Offer Sporting and Yard Game Equipment
Giving kids more playtime options doesn’t have to involve installing a new slide. Buying more footballs, hula hoops, jump ropes or soccer balls could go a long way in giving kids more opportunities to make use of empty space.
Low-cost games to offer the kids include:
- Giant Jenga: This game can be purchased or made by a handy parent. Several students can play at once, and it provides a unique take on the tabletop game.
- Tetherball: While this requires minimal installation, a tetherball pole allows students to play a unique one-on-one game that helps teach sharing and the process of taking turns.
- Cornhole: This game could be purchased or built by a parent volunteer. It could be a one-on-one or a partner game and also helps students practice taking turns. For added structure and excitement, a monitor could orchestrate a tournament spread across a week of recess.
Investing in a simple storage shed for all the yard games makes dispersing the equipment more manageable. This way, teachers don’t need to carry all of it to the playground every day. By instituting a check-out system, you teach the kids added responsibility while keeping all the materials accounted for.
8. Include the Artistically Inclined Kids
Not every kid loves sports. If a kid prefers artistic activities, they may feel bored and unrepresented on the playground.
Consider installing a weather-resistant chalkboard or turning the side of a building into one with chalkboard paint. For younger kids, you could outline letters on the building and have them practice tracing them. You could even make spaces for them to practice addition and subtraction. Consider having sidewalk chalk competitions to structure and validate artistic expression.
Set up a permanent easel with an erasable, clear art panel. Kids can channel the energy they usually invest in painting on their parents’ walls and furniture into this play space. For a more sensory experience, have a sand or water table for kids to express themselves with natural elements.
For the kids who love to express themselves musically, consider adding different materials for makeshift drums. If installed with inspiration, a wall of pots and pans with ladles and spoons could be a collaborative drum set.
9. Don’t Underestimate Paint
Even if you’re not adding functionality to the playground, beautification projects can help shape the environment and set the tone of the play space. Adding a mural to a wall could add an educational element if you decide to paint a map or history of the school’s county — or, it could help enforce core values by showing students sharing, collaborating, playing, exploring or studying.
Students could get involved in the painting or in selecting a theme. They could all vote on a particular design and watch as a professional artist works on the mural during recess. This way, they can see the creation process and gain a greater appreciation for the fine arts.
Even painting or staining existing structures could freshen up the school playground and revitalize current pieces. Children gravitate towards expressive, vibrant color, and repainting these pieces will make the spaces feel new again.
10. Protect Empty Space
Not every part of the playground should have equipment. Students need empty space to create their own games or play pick-up sports. Having empty space allows students to continue playing classic games without passing through other areas. Leaving some spaces open gives students a place to play more unstructured games and even lets them create games of their own.
11. Create Nondescript Spaces Free From Rules
Providing simple pieces without explicit instructions gives children the space they need to incorporate structures into make-believe. Playing pretend is a vital element of recess because it allows children a chance to use their imaginations. It improves their problem-solving skills, increases the depth of their language usage and enhances their recognition that other minds are different from their own — known to psychologists as the theory of mind.
To a child, a balance beam could be the pirate ship’s plank. A freestanding climber could be a mountain they need to scale. Letting them be the builders of their own universe gives them the skills to direct their own lives and believe that out in the real world, they can achieve anything they set their mind to.
12. If Possible, Make it Eco-Friendly
Playgrounds at their core are eco-friendly. They’re getting kids off devices and back out into nature, giving them an appreciation for the outdoors. In an urban area, offering a playground space becomes even more important in getting kids a safe place to stay outdoors.
But projects can become wasteful if companies don’t keep sustainability in mind. Try to find a manufacturer that either uses recycled material or actively reuses, reduces, eliminates and offsets the impact of their production.
Ready to Get Started?
Do you want to start imagining a better place for your students to grow, learn and play? Ready to get started improving your playground today? Have questions on what the building process would look like? Looking for more inspiration?
Our representatives are excited to talk with you about ways Playworld can make your students’ recess experience more exciting, inclusive and cognitively stimulating. Contact your local Playworld representative today!