What Are the Best Playgrounds for Toddlers?
A well-designed toddler playground can significantly impact the children who use it. Each offers unique experiences and creative opportunities, from plastic playground equipment to natural climbing elements.
When designing playgrounds for toddlers, you must consider their physical and mental abilities. Prioritize choosing the layout, playsets, and materials with safety in mind while still considering visually-appealing aesthetics.
WillyGoat Toys & Playgrounds carries equipment with all ages in mind, from infants to big kids. Our guide to toddler playgrounds can help you create the ideal play area for kids, whether you're opening the doors to a Montessori school or revamping an outdated church playground.
The Importance of Age-Appropriate Equipment
Kids know all the fun they can have while swinging, sliding, and testing their strength on the monkey bars, but the value of age-appropriate playgrounds goes far beyond being a simple pleasure of childhood.
Countless studies have shown that playgrounds are an asset to early childhood development, helping toddlers flex their newly acquired physical and cognitive abilities.
In a world that is increasingly structured and scheduled, even for toddlers, playgrounds are a safe zone for imaginations to run wild during free-play, practice problem-solving, and safely test the limits of their skills.
So what does a successful toddler playground look like? There are three indicators of "playful learning" that you should see as children navigate equipment: choice, wonder, and delight.
On a toddler playground, give children a choice by providing different activities and structures to play with. Little ones should encounter different levels of challenge and have access to props that invite both solo and group play.
Wonder is easy with toys that welcome exploration, pretend play, and safe risks. Objects like jumping stones or multi-storied structures invite toddlers to try new things, even if they're a little scary, within a controlled, monitored space.
Finally, delight comes from children feeling relaxed and welcome in their surroundings. Playgrounds should be full of laughter, talking, jumping, dancing, and other expressions of joy.
Access to Age-Appropriate Playground Structures
Children should have access to playground structures that meet their developmental needs to reap these benefits. While challenge and stimulation are essential, so are safety and accessibility.
The concept of "age-appropriate" goes far beyond simply taking a structure and scaling it down. Several factors determine whether or not playground equipment will check all the boxes for toddlers.
Play areas that include these pieces of equipment provide an age-appropriate level of challenge, meaning that the average toddler can navigate the elements safely while still benefiting from the physical and mental stimulation.
Why Do Toddlers Need Playground Equipment?
When children are playing, they are learning. With age-appropriate playground equipment, toddlers can develop a range of physical, mental, and social skills that will help them grow into well-rounded critical thinkers.
Across the board, experts agree that the act of playing is crucial to whole-child development, creating an outlet for creativity, social skills, language, and overall cognitive function.
Unlike organized physical activities, like gymnastics or tee-ball, playgrounds for toddlers offer the chance for little ones to choose how they're playing. That's an essential piece of "playful learning," as mentioned earlier.
By piquing the interest of a 1-3-year-old with colorful equipment or exciting obstacles, you are helping them stretch the limits of their imagination! They experience new ways of interacting with the world while taking risks and building self-esteem.
The gap from age 1 to 3 in physical development is vast. While younger toddlers have just learned to stay upright, older toddlers are well-versed in various physical activities. As such, toddler playgrounds should feature a variety of appealing equipment.
According to the National Program for Playground Safety, playgrounds for toddlers should have:
- Small steps
- Crawl spaces
- Platforms with climbable ramps and ladders
- Sand and water manipulatives
- Spring rockers and rideable areas
- Shade-covered sandpits
- Slides no taller than 4 ft
Choosing Equipment for a Toddler Playground
The developmental abilities of children aged 1-3 limit some equipment, but there are still plenty of options to create your ideal Montessori-style free play zone.
Shaded areas where play can continue uninterrupted are a crucial safety element for toddler playgrounds. Little ones aren't aware enough of their bodies to know when they're overheated, so add equipment that creates cozy rest areas without pulling kids away from the action.
The Happy Hollow Playground is an engaging set piece for the imagination to soar, thanks to its whimsical shape and beautifully detailed interior. The entire structure resembles a hollowed tree, complete with age-appropriate ramps and breezy open-air windows.
Along with being the perfect size for smaller areas like a church playground, it also features several sensory elements:
- Shelly the Snail Drum for musical stimulation
- Inclined Leaves require balance and gross motor skills
- Carl the Caterpillar with moveable rings and a levered mailbox to hone fine motor skills
- Hand-cranked Bertie the Bluebird for dramatic play
Larger playsets like the FunPlay Tot Play System provide shade and stimulation on a grander scale, offering the convenience of modular plastic playground equipment with the durability of galvanized steel.
The large canopy covers the entire structure, so toddlers can slide, crawl, and play safely outdoors.
Crawl-Throughs and Tunnels
Once little ones are past the crawling stage, it seems like they never slow down!
Crawling is still an important physical activity for toddlers because it helps stoke problem-solving skills and gross motor skills. Children have to navigate obstacles while using all four limbs, which can be challenging when they're just learning how their limbs work!
Tunnels are also great for pretend play, especially in Montessori schools, where free play is encouraged. They offer:
- Hiding spots
- Shady socialization areas
- Endless opportunities to roleplay
The Nature Themed Playground Log Tunnel is just one example of how crawling tunnels kindle the imagination.
As toddlers climb the textured bark, peek out of the side window, and scurry through the interior, they'll find endless ways to act out life as a forest critter or enjoy a friendly conversation in the shade.
For younger toddlers who are still transitioning to walking, try a more challenging piece of crawl equipment, like the Indoor Tot Climber. It helps children develop core muscles as they tackle the incline on their hands and knees, as well as bubble windows for sensory play.
Fine motor skills are a developmental stepping stone that requires toddlers to use small muscles in their hands, wrists, and fingers.
At first, toddler-aged children find activities that require fine motor acuity very challenging. If you've ever watched a child try to use scissors or a spoon, you understand how clumsily they control these small muscles!
Playgrounds can help hone these skills by offering manipulatives that involve pushing buttons, drawing, grasping, levers, and any other element that requires toddlers to use dexterity.
Offer toddler playground equipment that invites little ones to give their fine motor and imagination skills a workout. The Island Mud Kitchen features knobs, mixing bowls, and a cookery storage shelf to encourage creative, dexterous play.
Another option is a more giant playset that incorporates manipulatives into the design. The Discovery Mountain Playground, which includes spinning number blocks, wheels, gears, and a climbing vine, welcomes toddlers to use their fingers and hands for play.
Partner or Group Equipment
Toddler playground equipment designed for multiple users encourages social play, language development, and cooperation.
On any playground, you'll see children roleplaying as adults, characters, and peers as they explore their place in the larger social hierarchy. It is the place where children develop their first friendships, engage in conversations, and create personal boundaries.
Incorporate equipment that allows more than one child at a time. The Mini Circle Cycle 4-Seat Inground Play Rider helps strengthen little legs through pedaling and accommodates up to five children at a time.
Set the scene for imaginative conversation and group bonding with larger toddler playground toys like the Infinity Express Choo Choo 3 Piece Train Set.
Children will love pretending to operate their train while using the crawl tubes and steering wheels with their friends.
Spring Riders and SeeSaws
Spring riders and seesaws are ideal for helping toddlers build up their core strength and improving balance. The back and forth motion requires children to tighten their leg and abdominal muscles to stay upright, while the up and down springs need a firm grip.
There are plenty of options for spring riders that ignite imaginative play, whether solo or in a group setting.
Spring riders open doors for an adventure through individual play, thanks to the countless shapes and sizes available.
The School Bus Multi-Spring Rider and Rescue Truck Multi-Passenger Spring Rider require several children to maintain maximum bounce potential, so little ones will be excited to act out creative stories in these colorful vehicles.
SeeSaws also encourage teamwork and cooperative play. The Teeter Spring Rider or Portable SeeSaw are safe ways for children to practice balance on a school, daycare, or church playground. It also offers a toddler's first experience with simple machines!
Merry-Go-Rounds and Spin Elements
While adults might not enjoy the dizzying effects of spinning equipment, toddlers are thrilled by the weightlessness and rush of merry-go-rounds.
Because toddlers are still getting a feel for their level of coordination, merry-go-rounds for this age level should have built-in safeguards to prevent falls. The Tea Cup Merry Go Round has seats, rails, and speed control to keep little ones out of harm's way.
Similarly, the Spinning Tea Cup Merry Go Round is a spinning activity constructed of fiberglass and PE Board for toddler-appropriate sensory stimulation. The tip-proof base holds a saucer with a bench seat, center speed governor, and drilled drain holes to eliminate standing water.
Another kid-powered spin element is the Tiny Tots Spinner. This toy includes three individual seats, each with a back and gripping handles. The center speed governor limits turn speed for added safety.
Tricycles are one of the most beloved toys of toddlerhood, but they're tough to ride on mulch or grass. Additionally, riding around slides and swings is dangerous, especially for toddlers who aren't aware of their surroundings.
Families may also be hesitant to take toddlers out on sidewalks or trails, where more experienced riders may not see tots as they're turning corners.
Dedicated trike paths let little ones put the pedal to the metal without the added dangers of public riding areas with toddler-approved equipment like The Daytona Square.
This ADA-compliant TPO plastic path protects against fall injuries, is easy to set up, and comes with accessories like traffic signs, striping kits, and themed playhouses for added fun!
Dramatic Props and Creative Playsets
Give toddlers the right set and watch as they make it come to life through dramatic, cooperative play!
Like Mighty Monkey Playground, themed outdoor equipment provides structure and direction to guide toddlers through social activities. Children will love playing jungle explorer as they embark on an adventure through the palm trees.
Along the way, they'll find developmentally-appropriate activities to get their brains and bodies working. The sidewalls of the stump-shaped structure are embedded with percussion instruments, a ball maze, tic-tac-toe panel, a Plinko game, and more!
The Tot Town Sandbox is a world of fun and creative exploration! Tiny hands will love the sensory experience while playing construction worker, designing sandcastles, or digging up "artifacts."
This thrilling yet straightforward addition takes a plastic playground to a whole new level of interactive play!
Designing a Safe Toddler Playground
By prioritizing the developmental abilities and safety of ages 1-3, you can build a toddler playground that is unique, thrilling, and engaging!
So, what are the best playgrounds for toddlers? WillyGoat Toys & Playgrounds can help you choose equipment that plays to a toddler's skills by inviting little ones to take safe risks as they explore their environment.