How to Build a Playground: Design Concepts

Everything you need to know to design your own DIY playground and play set!

Neighbors and parents often ask me how I designed a playground for my children from scratch. While there were many factors to consider, the reality is that (as with any engineering project) many design choices were guided by design constraints (playground location, property boundaries, cost, etc.).

In this post, I’ll break down all of the concepts related to designing your own playground. My goal is to make this as detailed and informative as possible, so you can spend less time designing a playground and focus your time and effort on the actual playground construction.

As a reminder, we’re building a playground that looks like this:

Large playground stained brown with two green slides, swings, and monkey bars
Learn how to design a playground that looks like this!

This is the sixth post of a six-part series covering the fundamentals of building a playground. You can read the other posts in the series through these links: Overview, Materials & Tools, Connectors & Fasteners, Swings & Accessories, and Lumber. Additional posts have step-by-step instructions for the actual playground construction; you can explore those on my Playground page.

Alright, let’s get to the designing and engineering!

Components of a Playground

There are several components common to all playgrounds. Here I am listing the basic component, although there are many variations for each of these components (for example, different types of slides: scoop slides, wave slides, spiral slides, etc.).

These components can be separated into three categories: structural, access, and play. Space and cost are typical limiting factors in determining how many components will be added to a playground. I will refer to these components and categories throughout this post.

Structural components make up the main frame/structure of a playground. Other playground components are attached to structural components. These include:

  • Towers
  • Bridges

Access components are how you can get up to or down from structural components (namely towers). These include:

  • Ladders
  • Slides
  • Stairs
  • Ramps
  • Rock climbing walls

Play components are fun activities you can add to a playground. They’re optional, and include:

  • Swings
  • Monkey bars
  • Trapeze bars
  • Gymnastic rings
  • Sandboxes
  • Climbing ropes

Location and Size

The very first question you’ll need to answer when designing a playground is where is it going to go. Ideally you can find a large area, and one that is as flat as possible – the flatter the ground is, the easier playground construction will be. I placed our playground in our backyard, which has a steep hill at first but then levels off to mostly flat ground at the edge of our property line. So I backed up our playground to the end of our property.

The next, related question you’ll need to answer is what size is the playground going to be. This will depend on several factors, including property borders, what playground components you want to include, how much time you can devote to building the playground, and cost.

Our property is rectangular in shape, so a rectangular playground made sense. Also, it had to be longer than wider in order to avoid the steep hill in our backyard. I knew I wanted a minimum of two towers so I could add a bridge connecting the towers (bridges are one of the most fun parts of playgrounds!). I wanted swings, of course, so those would get added to the side of one of the towers. I also wanted monkey bars to make the playground more usable and enjoyable as my children grow up. The nice thing with monkey bars is that you can add swings to them for when the monkey bars aren’t being used (you can never have too many swings!). So I would add monkey bars to the side of the other tower. I briefly contemplated three towers with two bridges connecting them, but decided that would increase construction time and cost too much. A third tower would also have meant the playground would have taken up our entire backyard, and I wanted to keep some space open for children to run around, a future trampoline, soccer goals, and other backyard fun.

So, my rough playground design looked like this:

Schematic showing playground design
Schematic of my playground design.

Towers

After location and overall size, the next thing to think about is the basic building block of all playgrounds: the tower. It is essentially a free-standing deck or platform, and takes the shape of a rectangular prism. You can attach slides, swings, and other playground components to a tower. You can also connect multiple towers together with bridges. Towers are at the center of all playground designs, and look like this:

Diagram of a playground tower
Diagram of a tower.
Actual playground tower during construction
Tower during construction.

Towers are one way you can control the size of a playground. I used square 8 ft. x 8 ft. towers. Mostly that 8 ft. size was motivated by the fact that 8 ft. is a very common wood lumber length. So if everything I used was 8 ft. long, then there was less woodwork I would need to do (I wouldn’t need to cut boards down to a different length). As I mentioned previously, I had space to make these towers longer, but couldn’t make them any wider as I was trying to avoid the steep hill in our backyard. I will say that this 8 ft. x 8 ft. tower size allows for a very large and spacious tower deck to play on. Most store-bought playset towers are around 4 ft. x 4 ft.

Tower Height

We’ve talked a lot about playground length and width, but another important design consideration is the vertical height of the tower deck/platform. The choice of tower height will influence three factors: access components, usability, and cost.

Diagram showing the height of a playground tower
Tower height is an important design choice for certain playground components (for example, slides).

First, the height of the deck/platform determines what type of access components you can attach to the tower. For example, certain slides (spiral tube slides) are very large in size and can only be attached to playground decks/platforms that are at least 7 ft. high.

Second, the taller the tower deck/platform is, the more usable and enjoyable the playground will be for older children. A longer rock climbing wall, for instance, might be a bit intimidating to a younger child, but a welcome challenge to an older child. And if you’re going to be spending a lot of time and effort building a playground from scratch, you’ll want it to be fun for your children for as long as possible.

Third, the type of access components you attach to the tower also determines the overall cost of the playground. And in general, the taller the tower is the costlier the components will be. For example, a 5 ft. super scoop slide costs $371, whereas the 7 ft. version costs $531.

Access Components

At this point, it’s good to start thinking about and have a rough idea of what access components you want to attach to the playground tower.

Using my playground as an example, I wanted to add a slide and a combination rock climbing wall/step ladder to one tower. A slide is typically 2 ft. wide, and I wanted a 4 ft. wide rock climbing wall/step ladder (2 ft. for the rock climbing wall and 2 ft. for the step ladder). That’s 6 ft. on one tower side just for the access components. But I also had to factor in the 6×6 posts that compose the tower structure (two per side) and 4×4 handrail posts, so I needed almost 2 ft. buffer. These access components plus buffer perfectly fit a tower with 8 ft. on one side.

Dimensions of a rock climbing wall and step ladder on one side of a playground tower
Tower dimensions affect the quantity and type of access components you can add to a playground.

A smaller tower size (for instance, 5 ft.) can necessitate access component design decisions. You might only be able to have a slide and a ladder, a slide and a rock climbing wall, or two slides on a tower side. So you’ll need to think about what will be most fun for your children when designing playground towers.

I was also constrained by the fact that I was backing the playground up to the edge of our property, which meant I could not add any access components to the back side of the tower (Tower Option 1 in the figure below). If you are able to add access components to both the front and back sides of the tower (Tower Option 2 in the figure below), you’ll have more freedom in the quantity and type of access components you can add to towers.

Diagram showing where components can be added to a playground tower
Space and property boundaries can also determine the quantity and location of access components, which will affect tower design.

Bridges

If you have enough space and you’re designing a playground with multiple towers, you can connect them together with bridges. They’re a lot of fun to run across and, like towers, are another way you can control the overall size of a playground. Simply adjust the length of the bridge depending on how much space you have available for the playground.

Diagram showing two playground towers connected by a bridge
Diagram of two towers connected by a bridge.
Two playground towers connected by a bridge on the actual playground
View from one tower to another tower looking down the bridge.

There is an important construction principle regarding joist height and joist length that you should be aware of when deciding how long the bridge should be. A good rule of thumb is that the height of a joist (in inches) is the maximum length (in feet) that the joist can span. For example, a 2×10 (where 10 inches is the joist height) can span a maximum of 10 ft. This is a conservative rule of thumb; in reality, the maximum length a joist can span is a bit longer and depends upon joist size, the type of wood used, and joist spacing. But it’s better to be safe than sorry, as the saying goes.

I mention this since 2x6s and 2x8s are the most common joist sizes, which means that their respective bridge lengths would be a maximum of 6 ft. and 8 ft. So if you’re looking to have a longer bridge, you’ll need to use a larger joist (2×10 or 2×12). Larger joists cost more and are heavier, but can support more weight. So keep these considerations in mind too.

Play Components

The last factor to consider when designing a playground are the play components, and I’ll focus on two main play components: swings and monkey bars.

Swings

Just about every playground will have swings, and these will get mounted to one side of a tower. When determining how many swings you can have, you need to consider the length of the swing support beam. This will determine the number and spacing of swings.

Swing spacing is very important for safety. There are three main distances to consider for swing spacing, and these are shown here:

Diagram showing proper spacing of swings is important for safety
Swing support beam length determines the number and spacing of swings.

d1 is the spacing in between the end of the swing support beam and the start of a swing. The end of the swing support beam connects to a post. You don’t want this distance to be too small, otherwise if the swing gets askew while swinging then it will hit a post. You’ll want 6-12 inches for this distance. 12 inches is ideal – I would not use 6 inches unless your d2 is very large.

d2 is the spacing in between one swing’s hangers. This spacing affects lateral stability while swinging. The smaller this distance, the easier it will be for swings to get askew while swinging but the more swings you can fit on a swing support beam. The larger this distance, the more stable the swing will be (less side-to-side motion while swinging), but the fewer swings you’ll be able to fit on a swing support beam. You’ll want somewhere between 12-24 inches for this distance. 12 inches is very common for most playgrounds, but does lend itself to swings going side-to-side a fair bit. I used 24 inches for my playground, and children and parents love how stable the swings are.

d3 is the spacing in between adjacent swings. It’s similar to d1 in that you don’t want this distance to be too small, otherwise if the swing gets askew while swinging then it will hit another swing. You’ll want 6-12 inches for this distance, and I would not use 6 inches unless your d2 is very large.

I used a swing support beam that was 8 ft. long and was only able to comfortably fit two swings on it. I did install the hardware for three swings and had children test this out, but three swings were too cramped and unsafe. So if you are also using an 8 ft. beam, then stick with two swings. If you would like three or four swings, you’ll need to use a longer swing support beam.

Monkey Bars

Monkey bars are a great way to make playgrounds more usable and fun as your children grow older. I definitely wanted to include monkey bars on my playground since my children are natural climbers, and this is a much safer way for them to channel their climbing energy than trying to climb random furniture in my house.

There are two distances to consider for monkey bars, shown here:

Diagram showing monkey bar spacing
Monkey bar length and spacing.

d1 is the actual length of the monkey bar. You can’t change this – it’s length is whatever monkey bar you buy. But absolutely need to take this into account when attaching the support beams that will hold the monkey bars. You want the two support beams to be spaced as far apart as possible, but not so far apart that the monkey bars don’t connect to both beams.

d2 is the spacing in between two monkey bars. I used a spacing of 12 inches and it’s worked really well. I wouldn’t go less than 10 inches. The larger the spacing, the more challenging it will be to traverse the monkey bars. I wouldn’t make the spacing too large – older children often use every other monkey bar anyway.


Did you find this guide useful? Have you designed or built a playground or play set? Let me know in the comments below!


Read the other five posts on playground construction fundamentals: Overview, Materials & Tools, Connectors & Fasteners, Swings & Accessories, and Lumber.

Learn more at ProjectsByPeter.com/Playground


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