A good playground should challenge your child to get creative—and keep them safe. Playground designer Hanna Morrill shares what she has learned from making playgrounds and playing on them with her two-year-old son.

By Hanna Morrill, as told to Libby Ryan
Illustration by Emma Darvick

As a mom of a toddler, I’d spend a bulk of my time at local playgrounds even if it wasn’t part of my job to understand how kids like to play. I’m a playground designer—I design climbing structures and am a part of a team that makes sure a playground is fun and safe. 

When I started this job, I wasn’t a mom. But now that my son Colton is 2, I'm even more cognizant of how playgrounds are set up: Where are the swings in relation to the end of a slide? Is he going to come off a slide and run straight into somebody that's swinging on a swing? Is there a variety of equipment for different ages in one playground? Can my kid even play on it?

Even though (or maybe because) I know all the rules, regulations, and test processes that go into making a playground, I still worry about Colton staying safe—because he's little he can't climb everything, and he has epilepsy and used a walker until he was 22-months-old. Here’s what I think about when I choose a playground for my child, from kid safety to inclusivity to maximizing family fun.

I Always Supervise and Think About My Son's Safety 

As designers, we try to keep your kids safe as much as we can. A lot of times we think about the worst thing that a kid could do. “Can they climb on this? Can they swing on the roof and land on that?” If the answer is yes, we adjust the layout. I was that wild kid, so I have a little video playing in my head while looking at the structure—how can we make this safer and still be fun?

There's a lot that goes into keeping kids safe: rules about the size of openings, the height of towers, or even how thick the surfacing under the playground has to be in case a child falls. When Colton is on a playground, I have to remind myself that kids are better at climbing than we give them credit for, and we can let them fall because the surfacing is supposed to be rated for a fall. That's what it's there for. He'll be okay. And he'll learn.

I Let My Son Play His Way—and I Join the Fun

I see a lot of parents sit on a bench and just let their children play. I want to encourage them to actually get on the playground and play with their kids. Because you'll learn a lot about your child. Colton likes me to chase him through the playground—and his little giggle? I just love it.

Courtesy of Hanna Morrill
Hanna Morrill

But if your kid is using the playground in a way that is different, don't correct them. If your kid wants to climb backward through a climber of some sort, let them. Don't say, "Oh no, you're supposed to turn around and go this way." That's killing their imagination.

Obviously, keep safety in mind and know your kid’s habits. For instance, when I go to a playground, the first thing I notice is if there are wood chips or rubber for the surface. If you have wood chips underneath your playground, they get eaten by my son—they go straight in the mouth. And then he looks at me and goes, "Mmm!" and I say, "No, not yummy." Plus, they get stuck in his little orthotics and he likes to throw them. So we just try to avoid wood chips and go for the nice, smooth, flat rubber.

I Look for Inclusive Playgrounds

Rubber surfacing at a playground is also often an indicator of an inclusive playground. It's rare to have rubber surfacing without having any play equipment for kids who aren't able to climb as well as others.

When Colton was using his walker, I looked for playgrounds with a ramp so he could get up. And he loved it; it was pure joy. It is just so heart-warming to see the joy on people's faces the first time that they get to play on a playground. 

Courtesy of Hanna Morrill
Hanna Morrill

In the past, without thinking about it, we've been excluding this whole genre of people from our community parks because they physically can't 'play' in the traditional sense. Now we have playgrounds that a disabled child can play on, or a kid can play with their disabled parent or grandparent. Now we're seeing Grandma able to wheel herself up ramps to follow her grandson around the playground, when before she would have to sit on a bench because she can't get out of her wheelchair.

These playgrounds are also helping able-bodied children see that kids who look different than them can still be playmates and friends. It's bringing two sets of people together that have been separated for a very long time, lowering the stigma. It brings tears to your eyes, doesn't it? This thing we never thought of being that important is actually so important.

I Try to Think Like a Kid

Our minds are so different than a kid’s that it's impossible for us to have the same preference as our child. You might like it because it looks cool, but your kid might hate it because it's actually boring.

Don't pick a playground because you like it, pick it because your kid can play on it for a long time without needing you. If they're bored, it's time to find a different playground. If they go down the slide and they go look at the swing and then they come to find you because they need a playmate? That's probably not encouraging their creativity and imagination (although you should definitely join them just for extra fun). If you have to tear them off the playground, that tells you it was well-designed and that it will challenge your child.

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