Children playing silhouetted against sunset

National Study of Playgrounds: An Observational Study of Play and Design

How does design influence the use of playgrounds and the benefits they offer children, adults, and communities? The National Study of Playgrounds is the first observational study to examine the influence of design on use and physical activity in 60 playgrounds in the United States. The study was conducted over the summer of 2021 by Meghan Talarowski and her team at Studio Ludo, Dr. Deborah Cohen of Kaiser Permanente, Dr. Thomas McKenzie, and other partners. The National Institute of Health-funded study’s findings offer key insights for landscape architects and others who seek to design high-performance playgrounds.

The study centered around comparing user behavior at innovative and specially designed playgrounds to more traditional post-and-platform playgrounds. Innovative playgrounds were defined as having at least three of the following: a variety of surface types, naturalized and planted areas designed for play, open-ended structures that do not dictate play sequence, movable equipment; and not comprising solely of post and platform structures.

Researchers observed almost 34,000 playground users over the course of the study, which utilized several methodologies including the System for Observing Play and Recreation in Communities (SOPARC), a validated tool for collecting on user behavior related to play and recreation in the field. They also used Play Loop, a systematic observation tool for documenting how play behaviors and social interactions change over time within a playground. Dwell Time was used to document how long users stayed in the spaces. Finally, intercept surveys were used to assess play preferences, distance traveled, modes of transport, frequency of use, impacts of social factors, and factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Findings confirmed the importance of design in unlocking playground benefits. Among the key performance findings:

  • Innovative playgrounds attracted 2.5 times more users, generated almost 3 times as much moderate to vigorous physical activity, and had 31% more users per square foot than traditional playgrounds.
  • Playgrounds can promote physical activity for all ages: half of playground users observed in the study were not children. Adults were most physically active when playing with children and were most likely to play with children where swings, spinners, and larger-scaled climbing structures were present.  
  • Water play increased physical activity for children by 80%.
  • Swings were the most popular play equipment for all ages. For each swing there was 8% more use of playgrounds and an 8% increase in how long people stayed at the playground. 
  • The presence of spinners, climbers, and tall towers were also found to attract more visitors and increase how long people stayed at the playground.
  • Playgrounds with mature trees had twice as many users as those with no trees.
  • Design matters, but so does location and siting: people walking to a playground were six times more likely to visit weekly than those driving.

Studies like these, conducted by researchers across disciplines using a design and landscape architecture perspective, offer real-world evidence for the importance of design decisions in maximizing the positive benefits of playgrounds.


Landscape performance research, Metrics and methods, Post-occupancy evaluation

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