Design Principles


We believe that play environments should be beautiful, individually designed, should please and stimulate the senses, and be sources of delight and surprise. Nothing less will do. The PLAYLINK principles that follow form a framework within which design decisions can be made.

Playable space: The starting point

Playable spaces are, broadly, spaces and places where children and teenagers are able or should be able, to play and socialise freely. Conceptually, playable space has a wider embrace than designated play areas which, by definition, are characterized by the motifs of separation and containment. This is not to say that designated play spaces have no value, but from PLAYLINK’s perspective, the starting point for providing for children and teenagers is to weave their play and socialising wants and needs into the wider communal and public realm.

The concept of playable space presupposes a general value that:

Children and young people being seen and heard in a shared public realm are one of the hallmarks of a society at ease with itself.’ PLAYLINK baseline play policy

Design principles

1. Each space is different, not only physically, but also in its wider social, cultural and economic context. How the principles find expression, therefore, will vary from location to location.

2. There is a presumption in favour of integrating play, children and teenagers into the wider communal and public realm.

3. Every design should aim to create and enhance the genius loci – the spirit and uniqueness - of each individual place.

4. There is a presumption against the fencing of designated play spaces, though there will be circumstances where fencing or other forms of boundary will be appropriate.

5. Boundaries, where thought necessary, need not be formed by fencing.

6. Provision should maximise the range of play opportunities. The provision should therefore extend the choice and control children and teenagers have over their play, the freedom they enjoy and the satisfaction they gain from it by ‘designing in’ a capacity to change and be changed by users.

7. Playable space should be designed for children and teenagers of all ages, abilities and disabilities. Only in particular circumstances should specific areas be designed with a bias towards a particular age range. It is a social good that different age groups mix with each other.

8. Teenagers should be provided for - this is not to be understood as an automatic requirement for ball courts and wheel parks, still less for what is known as Youth Shelters.

9. Teenagers like to socialise together. This can be accommodated by forming intimate and aesthetically pleasing settings. This is not to suggest bounded-off teenage places.

10. Worth a reiteration in relation to No. 7 above structures known as ‘Youth Shelters’ should in general be avoided.

11. The needs and wants of parents and carers that necessarily accompany very young children should be considered. For example, outdoor playable space should offer seating1 and ‘slack spaces’ where people – children, teenagers, and adults - can congregate and linger.

12. Particularly for ‘destination’ parks and play spaces, toilets should be provided. This is particularly significant for very young users, their carers, and for some disabled people. The provision of toilets will encourage longer periods of ‘dwell time’ by space users.

13. Outdoor playable space should be biased towards the formation of ‘natural’ environments. Planting, landform, the use of ‘natural’ materials, and enhancing bio-diversity, all contribute to the creation of rich, ever-evolving, dynamic environments which change with the seasons.

14. Designs should aim for sustainable methods of landscape construction such as making use of local materials, sustainable drainage methods, the use of reclaimed materials and the reduction of waste and resources as far as is possible to the extent that this supports or enhances the overarching design objectives.

15. Designs should aim to enhance bio-diversity, both for the benefit of wildlife and for people’s greater contact with nature.

16. There is a presumption that high-quality materials will be used, except where they are specifically designed in as ‘consumables’.

17. There is no presumption that playable space requires play equipment. Where play equipment is used, it should form an integral part of the total design.

18. Playable spaces should include access to ‘loose parts.

19. ‘Slack space’ is an important aspect of playable space. Slack space is a space with no predefined function, it allows for change and evolution, in particular by the space user.

20. There is a presumption in favour of providing for water and sand play. This need not be either elaborate or expensive.

21. Outdoor playable space should offer shelter and shade. This may be provided by, for example, existing tree cover.


22. Places for play should be accessible to all children and young people. This does not mean that everything within a play set has to be accessible to every child. One key aim is that disabled children and young people should be able to engage socially - as distinct from being able to 'do' everything - with others.

23. Making judgments about what form accessibility should take in any particular case is about striking a balance between, for example:

  • different objectives: Balancing the aim to create challenging environments against the desire to make spaces widely accessible

  • providing for different forms of disability: What may be beneficial for a person with one form of disability may not be good for a person with another. Note, that some children and teenagers have multiple disabilities.

24. Where play equipment is used there is a presumption against the use of specialist equipment for disabled children and teenagers. Basket swings, hammocks, and wide slides can be used by a wide range of children and teenagers; they also allow carers, friends and siblings to assist the disabled user (see also No. 25 below).

In addressing disability it’s worth a quick look at the UK statistics. For disabled children, the most common impairments are in respect of communication, memory, learning, concentration, mobility and recognising danger. The majority of impairments are not visible - less than 8% of disabled people use wheelchairs. Only 28% of wheelchair users are under the age of 60. This brief overview of the prevalence of disability and the forms it takes should act as an antidote to the tendency to equate disability primarily with wheelchair use at the same time as acknowledging that problems with mobility, in general, are more common.


25. Provision should aim to manage the balance between children and young people’s needs and want to take risks and the need to keep them from being exposed to unacceptable risks of death or serious injury. In meeting this principle, designers should ensure that provision recognises children and teenagers' wish and need to freely undertake actions and involve themselves in situations that push against the boundaries of their own capacities. This process fosters the development of skills and is broadly educative in that it allows children to learn through experience what cannot be taught, and what they have to find out for themselves. It is also often fun.

26. Children and young people with disabilities want and need to engage in risk-taking. Designs must aim to accommodate this.

27. Risk-benefit assessment (RBA) is a key, necessary process for making judgments about what constitutes an acceptable risk level of risk.

28. Play equipment standards are not mandatory in the UK PLAYLINK will use the RBA process to determine when and if it is beneficial to adhere to them in any particular case.

29. Decisions about whether or not impact absorbing surface (IAS) is required, and if so, which type, will be made on the basis of a Risk-Benefit Assessment.

30. There is a presumption against the use of a ‘wet pour’ or rubberised tile impact absorbing surface. Sand, grit, bark and grass are preferred surfaces. As stated, decisions will be based on Risk-Benefit Assessment. Throughout PLAYLINK’s design work, from schools to the public realm, we have yet to find it necessary or beneficial to create rubber surfaces.

31. An HSE report ‘Risks, Benefits and Choices’ by Professor David Ball, Middlesex University School of Health & Social Sciences Centre for Decision Analysis & Risk Management, has significant things to say about Impact Absorbing Surfaces. It can be found here:


32. In order to ensure the continued quality and usability of the space, maintenance plans should be developed as part of the design process of every new playable space. This is also in recognition that an ever-evolving landscape necessitates continual care and intervention i.e. good ‘gardening’.