What Does a Natural Playground Cost?
We always know there’ll be a time during presentations to prospective clients when
someone will ask “how much do natural playgrounds cost?”
I take a deep breath and say “That’s a hard one, but if you give me a minute, I’ll
give you an answer.”
It’s hard because there are no direct comparisons. A few of the tangibles might be
sort of comparable, but it’s almost impossible to compare the intangibles.
For instance, a slide is a slide, so the experience of actually going down a slide in a
manufactured playground and going down a slide built into a hill in a natural
playground will be pretty close. But it’s really more complicated than that.
Here’s an example: a 35’ long slide gives a great ride for kids of all ages, 5 years to
65 years. To achieve the proper slope for this long a slide, the ladder has to be 20’
high. 20’ is way off the ground. If kids try climbing the slide and fall off one side,
they’ll get hurt. If they fall off the ladder, they’ll get hurt. Further, if they’re afraid
of climbing ladders, or are intimidated by height, they won’t have a chance to even
try the slide.
On the other hand, if this same slide is built into a hill, there is no ladder (so no one
can fall off one), there is no way a child can be intimidated by height, and there are
no sides to fall off of, which makes the slide very safe. Further, if the access up the
hill to the top of the slide is made challenging and fun (rock walls to climb, or
interesting paths to follow), then children will find the whole experience more
interesting and may therefore be more inclined to repeat it -- thus making them
exercise more while they’re learning more than just climbing up and sliding down.
The actual cost of the slide for the natural playground will be far less, as the slide
is simpler (no structure, no ladder, no ladder enclosure, no tube to keep kids from
falling off), and there is no need for a fall zone all around the slide (it’s just at the
On the other hand, you do need a hill in which to embed the slide...but the hill
creates a great opportunity for numerous other activity elements: climbing walls,
rock climbs, rope and post climbs, caves, other length slides, water falls, open
tunnels, slopes for rolling and sledding, jumps, and so on -- all of which can be
built into the hill, all of which require no structures, and all of which are therefore
Just to make the point a bit further, let’s look at a climbing wall. In a manufactured
playground, a large climbing wall is usually free standing. Because it stands by
itself, it’s a destination activity, so a child makes a simple choice about it. “Do I
want to try climbing this wall or not.” There is no incentive to climb it, other than
the fear of being left out, so if they don’t want to climb it, they won’t, and will just
go do something else instead.
A climbing wall built into a hill is a whole different situation! We usually taper our
walls to follow the slopes, so both the lower and higher parts of the wall appeal to
different skill levels. But because there is exciting stuff happening on top of the
hill, such as caves, king of the hill forts, expedition boulders, slopes to roll down,
and lots of other things -- not the least of which is the view from the highest point
on the playground -- a child has lots of incentive to learn wall climbing.
It’s no longer a simple destination activity that can be ignored. It’s a fully engaging
activity that involves more of the senses, more challenge, more self-motivation,
more energy, more socializing, more learning, and more discovery.
Yet another way to think about it.
Recently, we were working on a design of a natural playground for one
area at an elementary school of about 22,000 square feet in size --
close to a ½ acre (outlined in green dots below).
As you can see, spread over this entire area is a wonderful blend of
many distinct, very different, very wonderful play elements,
everything from a rain garden, a labyrinth, an amphitheater, and a
large sand play area, to a fairy village, a stream, a teepee village,
caves, climbing elements, a slide, fruit trees, benches, a discovery
path, and so on
A landscape contractor estimated $100,000 to build this area.
We decided it would be an interesting exercise to see what $100,000
could buy in the way of equipment (which had to include its
installation, the fall zone material, and borders to contain the fall
In the top right corner of the photo, you can see what we came up
with. This is shown in the same scale! This equipment occupies only
3,000 square feet (or only 15% of the entire ½ acre!), it’s visually
unappealing, it’s unchallenging, it’s boring after a few tries, it’s
metal/plastic has a very high carbon footprint, it’s not sustainable,
and the injury statistics say that it’s not safe.
Heres another interesting fact: to intrigue you, manufacturers always
tout how many play activities their equipment has. To arrive at this
number, they count each individual item as a separate play activity,
so if there are 4 playshell traverses (all of which are the exact same
item), the company considers these 4 play activities, or if there are
13 playpod pedestals, each pedestal is considered a play activity.
This sample equipment in the top right corner is advertised as having
43 play activities.
With this same approach in mind, we counted all the individual rocks,
steppingstones, posts on the post-walk, and so on, and this particular
design has 430 such play activities -- 10 times as many as the above
equipment for the same price!!, but carefully and thoughtfully spread
out over the whole 22,000 square feet so kids are constantly moving
around the entire site!!
So comparing activities between natural and manufactured playgrounds
is almost meaningless. Nevertheless, the above image shows the
spatial comparison and also highlights the visual differences.
Read more about Affordable Playgrounds HERE.
Please contact The Natural Playgrounds Company® to discuss your thoughts and plans. We welcome your inquiries and will get back in touch with you promptly.
Thank you for spending some time with us today.
(Don't forget to check out our online store of natural play elements!
Click HERE to go there now!)