Planning Playgrounds and Athletics Facilities
Part of the Educational Specifications Planning Process

By: Franklin Hill, Ph.D. - Monday, June 13, 2005

Too often, the planning of playgrounds and athletic fields are given serious attention only after the ĺ─˙more important designĺ─¨ of the school is complete.  After all, they are only PE areas.  This approach is a total mistake and reflects a lack of understanding of the complex and important relationship these areas have to the total educational program, safety/security of students, and opportunities for school campus use by the community.

Of the numerous important issues in planning playgrounds and athletics, at least remember the big three:

  • The overall master plan relationship of the outside areas to the school,
  • Access by students from the school during the day and the community at night, and
  • Age appropriate scale of equipment and access, particularly for younger students.

Importantly, these themes apply to all levels of K-12 facility design.

High Schools

A recently completed California high school placed the stadium on a beautiful area of the site, which included a natural slope that could be economically incorporated into the bleacher seating.  At the master planning level, this solution seemed like a ĺ─˙slam dunkĺ─¨ solution. 

Unfortunately, the design failure was in the details.

  • The building was ĺ─˙sandwichedĺ─¨ between the stadium and the parking. 
  • Evening patrons passed by the school to access the events. 
  • Traffic was horrendous, supervision was impossible, and the building and people were completely vulnerable to vandalism/misbehavior. 

Problems really got bad after the visiting team lost a big game.  What they could not achieve on the field, the patrons ĺ─˙took outĺ─¨ on the building.  In addition, the design was so hidden in back that the community could not use the track or other features without feeling remote, unsafe and vulnerable. 

These problems could have been avoided by more detailed pre-planning of evening access from the parking lots, creating a visitor parking and access route away from the building to distribute and diversify patron traffic, and providing a side street access to the site for the community.

To avoid these problems, a complete list of performance goals should have been clearly specified in the educational specifications and discussed with the architects during the pre-design planning process. 

Middle Schools

Middle school planning offers a good example of the importance of athletic and PE field access from the buildingĺ─Â and vise versa. (Remember, kids bring dirt back with them.)

Some planners prefer to provide direct access from the rear of the locker room directly outside to the fields, track, tennis, etc.  This is thought to be more efficient.  I am not sure.

Often times this approach causes many problems:

  • There are too many doors to secure ĺ─ý locker room entry doors from the hallway plus those leading from the locker to the outside.
  • Extra doors are a weekend security problem for entry, broken hardware/lights, and graffiti.
  • These quick exit departure doors are without windows and become a safety hazard for in/out traffic.
  • Returning students, all at once, get bottle necked as they re-enter carrying equipment, dirty feet, and eagerness to not be late for their next class.

Alternatively, consider planning access from the main building via an adjacent hallway leading from the locker room to the fields.  The graphic below reveals several benefits.

  • Limited doors provide improved security and are cheaper.
  • Exit vestibule doors are more energy-efficient in colder climates
  • Dirt can be ĺ─˙shedĺ─¨ by students as the transition from field, to walkway, to covered entry with floor mats, to easily cleaned hallways, etc.
  • Male/female students are easily observable upon departure and return as a unified class. 
  • Wide windowed entry doors provide improved supervision, safety, and security.

Again, the educational specifications should provide practical guidance on summarizing performance issues. 

Elementary Grades

Sometimes we think the ĺ─˙little kidsĺ─¨ just go outside and playĺ─Âblowing off steam so they can return to class for ĺ─˙real educationĺ─¨.  Thus, playground planning may be considered flexible ĺ─˙spaceĺ─¨ outside the building.  This cannot be further from the truth.

The age differences, maternity ranges, and physical size of the youngster pose numerous important concerns at all levels of planning ĺ─ý Marco level big picture issues and micro level details at the individual level.  The graphic below simplifies a few general concepts:




In elementary playground planning, be sure to consider the following:

  • Avoid travel through younger child areas/equipment to access older student fields.  This obvious conflict is often missed in an attempt to keep the younger students closer to the building for easy access and security.
  • Sequence ĺ─˙transitionalĺ─¨ areas between older and younger student fields and equipment.  Students vary greatly in PE/sports maturity, dexterity, and physical size.  Thus, some students may play more comfortably on smaller swings or climbing equipment than others, but still want to be ĺ─˙part of the groupĺ─¨.  Proper sequencing of equipment for access, teacher visibility, and scale can provide unified and supervised creative play with reduced conflicts and ĺ─˙hurt feelingsĺ─¨
  • Place pre-school and kindergarten much closer to the actual classroom, if not right outside.  Pay attention to micro level details to provide more direct observation, sensitive ĺ─˙confinementĺ─¨, and even properly oriented roof cover to protect from the heavy sun.  Finally, keep the youngest children a safe distance from parking areas, drop offs, and inappropriate pedestrian traffic.  This avoids unauthorized parent/adult access.
  • Finally, plan elementary play areas for other creative uses such as imaginative role-playing, theater performances, science activities, and even art.  Overlapping functionality, when done with practical understanding of program, can be very useful, economical, and educationally productive.

By just touching a few key points, it becomes obvious that playgrounds and fields are an active ingredient to the educational program and MUST be planned comprehensively as part of a total educational program to site master planning.

These design issues should be identified jointly in a properly facilitated pre-design process of educational specification development. Educational specifications create a learning process for the educator, establish performance standards for use, and provide a simple checklist to be used during the design phases to be inclusive of important educational program requirements.


Franklin Hill, Ph.D. is a national consultant providing educational specifications, district master plans, and Internet design review of new or remodeled buildings for architects and school districts across North America.  His unique credentials and experience in education, design, and finance provide a broad practical perspective of issues facing education and design.  Frank is a regular contributor on facility design topics and can be reached at

Send Frank any questions that can be used for future issue topics.  Come on, send us a tough question.


Return to SDPL                         Print This PagePrint This Article

Click below to request more information from Franklin Hill

Request more information


Would you like to receive our extremely popular eNewsletter?  Sign up here!


  • Administration
  • American Disabilities Act
  • Building Maintenance
  • Custodial Services
  • Department of Education
  • More...

    If you would like to learn more about advertising and marketing opportunities at call (714) 279-7933 or click here to access our Marketing Center.

    Get the 2006 Media Guide

    Some of our services:

    • Lead Generation
    • Lead Qualification
    • Online Advertising
    • Case Study Writing
    • Market Research
    • Surveys

    Visit our partner web sites:

    A GBM Marketing, Inc. property

    Copyright Čę 2001-2004 - Facilities Resource Company - All rights reserved. Web Site v1.0 (Build 6.0) (08/25/2006 09:48 PM)
    Core v1.5 (Build 0.81)