While you may think kids in their middle school years are too old to play, the opposite is true. Middle schoolers need to play just as much as they did when they were younger — they just need stimuli that better suits their age group.
If you’re considering building a playground at your middle school, we’ve got you covered. Our guide will provide tips for designing middle school playgrounds and suggest some age-appropriate playground equipment to consider.
Why Is it Important to Create a Play Space for Middle Schoolers?
Play is an essential part of kids’ lives, even throughout their preteen years. But play involves more than what can be observed among groups of small children. For older kids, play is an opportunity to engage their interests on their own terms.
The three foundational elements of free play include:
- Choice: A child can freely choose which activity they want to do.
- Self-direction: The child can decide the rules for their play time — for example, how long they want to participate in an activity and with whom.
- Imaginative creation: The child can freely use their imagination to create their own games, stories and solutions to problems.
The child must be able to exercise all of the above faculties free from pressure or stress. This idea translates into the classroom, where teachers can better facilitate learning by incorporating elements of play into their lessons.
This is especially important for middle school kids, who are experiencing a time of dramatic change and high stress. Unfortunately, kids today often lack opportunities to engage in free play, resulting in adverse effects like decreased mental and overall health.
Here’s why middle school kids need safe places to play:
Providing a safe space for kids to engage in playful physical activity encourages them to get moving, which is essential for their well-being.
Equipment that presents preteens with age-appropriate physical challenges helps them build muscular strength and endurance beyond what they already developed in their early childhood years. Other benefits include improved cardiorespiratory fitness, increased bone density and a reduced risk of developing chronic conditions such as heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes.
Physical activity is also known to contribute to improved mental health. Studies have shown that, on average, adolescents who engage in regular exercise experience lower levels of depression and anxiety and higher levels of self-esteem and body positivity than their sedentary peers.
Middle school is when kids really start making decisions for themselves, which is vital for learning how to function as an individual.
In correlation with this decrease in free play, middle school educators have noticed an increase in children lacking executive functioning skills such as mental flexibility, multitasking and self-control. Instead, kids spend more time participating in preprogrammed activities and screen time, with their only opportunities for free play arising late at night.
By providing a safe, low-stakes environment where kids can challenge themselves, you allow them to exercise their minds along with their bodies in fun, interesting ways.
Play spaces provide a safe area for kids to spend time with their friends, which is typically limited during classes and extracurricular activities. By middle school, kids have already developed many of the basic social skills they need to successfully navigate the world.
However, interacting with their peers on the playground provides kids with many opportunities to further hone critical social skills like patience, sharing, communication and cooperation. Social interactions with kids of different backgrounds and abilities help middle schoolers become more accepting and supportive of diversity, which is critical for navigating the diverse world we live in.
Adolescence is a difficult time for many kids. At this age, kids begin focusing more intensely on academic and adult-directed extracurricular activities, reducing the amount of free time they have to pursue their own interests. With less chance to exercise free choice, kids can easily feel stifled, contributing to mental health challenges like anxiety and depression.
Free choice is one of the foundational elements of play, where kids have complete freedom to choose the activities they participate in. Whether kids play on their own or team up with classmates, they grow emotionally.
Letting kids exercise this choice gives them a chance to:
- Gain confidence: Play presents kids with a safer opportunity to take risks and try new things. When kids overcome these challenges on the playground, they gain the confidence they need to tackle difficult tasks in other areas of their lives.
- Relieve stress: After long hours in a classroom, kids need a little time to blow off steam and mentally regroup. Once they return to the classroom, they’ll be able to focus better on the tasks at hand.
- Improve mood: Being outdoors and exercising can help reduce anxiety levels and improve a child’s self-esteem, resulting in a more positive mood. Over time, kids will begin associating these positive feelings with outdoor time, which can lead to them building healthy habits and appreciation for the environment as they grow older.
Tips for Designing a School Playground
When designing a playground for older students, you need to consider your student body’s needs and the playground’s overall aesthetic. These tips can help guide you through the design process to create an exciting, attractive playground:
Begin With Inclusivity in Mind
The best playgrounds are designed with inclusive play in mind from the beginning. Keep in mind that inclusive playgrounds are a separate category from accessible playgrounds. All playground equipment must legally comply with the standards established in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which makes them accessible to kids with disabilities. However, meeting these standards does not necessarily mean the playground is inclusive.
An inclusive playground goes beyond ADA standards to provide equipment that lets kids with varying emotional, intellectual and mobility needs play together. By considering how you will incorporate inclusivity from the start of your project, you’ll better meet your student body’s needs.
Create Different Play Zones
By breaking your playground into distinct sections, you can provide a space for kids of all ability levels to play. Here are several suggestions for how to distinguish between play areas:
- Energy level: Separating activities based on physical intensity lets kids engage in their chosen activities without interruption. For example, kids should have a space to climb that does not get in the way of kids who would rather catch up with their friends at a picnic table, and kids who want to draw should be able to do so without interrupting kids who are swinging.
- Equipment Type: By mixing similar pieces of equipment with different challenge levels in one area, you encourage kids of different abilities to play together, which fosters empathy and an appreciation for diversity.
- Different ages: If you have to share play space with elementary school kids, you may want to consider separate play areas for each age group. Kids’ play styles change dramatically as they grow, so they need different equipment for each stage of their lives.
Include Multiple Types of Play
Middle school kids play in many different ways. Designing a playground that allows for these different types of play gives kids the opportunity to play at their own speed and pursue their interests.
Consider the following types of play when choosing equipment:
- Active play: Active play is what most people think of when they think of playgrounds — activities that get the body moving, like swinging, spinning and climbing. Most playgrounds are designed with active play in mind.
- Social play: Kids participate in social play when they interact with their peers. As a result, social play happens anywhere kids play together in the same space.
- Imaginative play: Playing pretend — creating fictional scenarios and acting them out — helps kids develop creativity and imagination. A themed playground is one way to encourage imaginative play.
- Reflective play: Kids participate in reflective play when they take time to contemplate their peers and surroundings. Adding site furnishings like benches and picnic tables and leaving open space for kids to watch the clouds can help promote reflective play.
- Sensory play: Sensory play engages kids’ senses, encouraging creativity, curiosity and learning. Equipment like spinners, swings and slides are fun options for facilitating sensory play.
- Creative play: Kids engage in creative play when they express themselves through art such as drawing, dancing, coloring and making music. Installing a set of freestanding outdoor musical instruments is a great way to promote creative play.
Consider Site Furnishings
Site furnishings are the finishing touch on any playground. They make playgrounds more comfortable for kids, further encouraging them to play and spend time outside.
Consider the following options for your campus:
- Shade structures: Keep your students cool and more comfortable in hot weather by installing shade structures over uncovered areas. You can also use existing natural shade from trees and buildings if it’s available.
- Picnic tables: Outdoor picnic tables give kids a durable, comfortable surface to pursue lower-energy activities like reading, making crafts or playing board games. Plus, teachers can use these tables to bring classes outdoors in good weather, or students could use them during their lunch period.
- Benches: Give kids a place to rest comfortably after spending time on the playground by installing several benches along the perimeter of your play space. You can also customize benches to match your school colors and create a cohesive look.
- Trash receptacles: Reduce litter and encourage kids to take care of their environment by installing trash receptacles in strategic locations, like at the entrance to the playground or near school doors. Make sure to either choose receptacles that come with lids or buy lids separately to keep garbage from blowing out.
- Hand sanitizing stations: Encourage kids to keep their hands clean and reduce the spread of illness by installing hand sanitizing stations near your playground.
Playground Equipment for Middle School Students
Middle school students need playground equipment that is more mentally and physically challenging than equipment for elementary schoolers.
Consider incorporating some of the following elements in your middle school playground design:
- Climbers: Climbing helps kids build strength in their whole body by requiring them to push with their legs and pull with their arms. Rock climbing walls provide an extra degree of challenge for older kids, while overhead climbing events let them focus on the core and upper body. A hybrid climber like the Rushmore enables kids to climb, crawl, walk and more, all on one component.
- Spinners: Spinning playground equipment provides kids with safer thrills and activates the vestibular system, the part of the nervous system involved in balance. This motion provides a thrilling experience for kids while developing their coordination and core strength.
- Slides: Kids of all ages love whooshing down the slide and feeling the breeze against their faces. Classic slides work well as freestanding events and exits on larger play structures, but you could also shake things up with embedded rollers or separate racing lanes to provide a more unique experience.
- Swings: A swing set is essential to any playground, including one for older kids. Installing accessible swing seats next to the standard seats on your set allows kids of varying abilities to join the fun. Group swings are another excellent inclusive option for this age group.
- Zip lines: Playground zip lines give kids the thrilling experience of gliding at high speeds while hanging onto the handle, developing their grip strength and upper body muscles. Multi-user zip lines and accessible seats are also available, so more kids have a chance to join.
- Games: Classic playground games like tetherball or Toss-Up are great choices for middle school-aged kids because they encourage bonding and healthy competition among peers.
Fitness and Wellness Equipment
Outdoor fitness equipment gives older kids an opportunity to move their bodies of their own free will. It can also double as equipment for physical education during class time, further maximizing its value for the school.
Consider equipment geared toward school-age kids, such as:
- Recumbent Bike: A recumbent bike provides full support for the lower back, making it an ergonomically friendly option for targeting the legs and lower body.
- Twister: By twisting from side to side while holding on to the Twister‘s handlebar, kids develop strength and flexibility in their lower back and obliques.
- Shoulder Slide: The Shoulder Slide helps kids work their back and shoulder muscles by sliding the attached sliders along the U-shaped rails.
- Arm & Shoulder Circles: The disks on the Arm & Shoulder Circles rotate inwards and outwards, allowing kids to develop their upper back and shoulders.
If you plan to include outdoor fitness equipment in your design, be sure to keep playground zones in mind. Establish fitness areas separate from your main playground equipment to better enforce proper equipment usage. Adding signage explaining the different areas can make the distinction clearer for kids.
Partner With Playworld for Your Middle School Playground Equipment
At Playworld, we’re dedicated to creating enriching play spaces for kids of all abilities. Our school-age playground equipment is designed to promote social interaction, encourage healthy habits and challenge kids physically and mentally.