From the time New Zealand children first go to day-care, kindergarten, and then primary school, the playground forms an important aspect of their development. It's not just a place for them to blow off steam; the playground facilitates learning every bit as much as the classroom. Yes, it's where they have fun and get some exercise, but they also learn to manage risk, improve their agility and confidence, and develop essential social skills.

Because the playground is such an important part of their day, it's vital that schools get the design right. It's not just a matter of finding some equipment and plonking it in the grounds; there are key elements that make up the design so that the playground becomes a crucial developmental aspect of a child's day.

To get it right, New Zealand schools need to bring in professional designers, landscape architects and equipment manufacturers, but it doesn't hurt to gain a broad understanding of what those key elements are.

It needs to look like fun
There's no point spending money on a new playground that the kids don't find attractive. While it's understandable that schools would want to protect their facility from damage or graffiti, enclosing it in wire mesh will make it look like a prison yard. Aesthetics are important; it's why successful playgrounds contain brightly coloured equipment, green lawns, attractive landscaping and nice-looking seating areas. It needs to be easily accessible by kids of all ages and abilities, and it's also a good idea to locate it reasonably close to the main school building, so that staff can keep an eye on it and be close at hand if they're needed.



A perfect example of a bright, fun and inviting playground is the Christchurch-based Margaret Mahy playground.

A journey of discovery
Because a good playground is about stimulating kids intellectually as well as physically, it needs to provide them with a challenge. Making it a journey of discovery will help them to use rational thinking as well as encouraging them to collaborate. Design the layout of the playground with the objective that they have to cross one obstacle to get to the next. They should increase in difficulty as they go, so that the children are not only being constantly challenged, but they will also help each other out.

Include risky challenges
It's no good wrapping kids up in cotton wool. Bumps, bruises and grazes are part of growing up. Kids need to learn to manage risk - it's an essential part of their development and the school playground is one of the most important places to learn what danger is and how to deal with it. So include equipment that has an element of risk: balance beams, climbing walls, rope equipment and monkey bars. Taking a spill is how they learn, and if the playground is properly supervised, the risk is a safe and measured one.

Also Christchurch-based, the Scarborough Park playground provides challenging equipment to stimulate development.

Time out in the playground too
Kids get over-excited and when they do, they need an area in which to cool off. There could be any number of reasons for this; they've become frustrated, they've got into a fight, they've had a fall or they're simply waiting until some of their more boisterous classmates are finished before they join in. For that reason, it's important to have a quiet area where they can reflect, relax or refresh.  Quiet, safe places are important for children to be able to focus and think better.

Be in the zone
This one takes careful planning. Zones should provide areas that are focused on different areas of activity. If you have a particularly difficult piece, such as a climbing tower, position it in a different zone from something that's less challenging. That way, kids who are lacking in confidence can play in zones with easier obstacles rather than feeling pressured to take on something they find a bit too scary.

If the new playground is for primary school children, it's often a good idea to bring some of the older kids on board during the planning phase. They'll provide some valuable insight and suggestions, because after all, they're the ones with the most relevant and up-to-date experience of playgrounds. They'll also appreciate being asked, and will take it seriously.

If kids have access to playgrounds that have been designed and built with their recreation and learning needs in mind, the better and more productive their school years will be.