Surfacing Play Value

Play is the foundation for learning and a critical component of healthy social, emotional, and intellectual development of children. Through child-centered free play, children develop fine and gross motor skills, communication and language skills, and engage in problem-solving, choice-making, and other cognitive skills. 

Providing opportunities for various types and forms of play such as dramatic play, cooperative play, and constructive play nurtures a child’s individual learning style and increases their learning potential. It is essential that children are provided with opportunities to engage in meaningful play experiences that enrich their childhood and create lifelong memories.

Play value can be described as how children read play affordances in the play environment that can motivate and reinforce play. Surfacing options offer a vast array of opportunities to infuse play value into the overall design of the environment to promote meaningful play experiences, provide multisensory features, and transform the playscape to encourage creativity, imagination, and bring playful learning outside. 

Playground equipment is often selected based on play value, innovation of unique products, and how chosen elements will help develop skills. The same criteria should be taken into consideration regarding the variety of surfacing options and features that can be strategically embedded to increase the overall play value of the outdoor play space. Each play environment can have its own unique way of infusing play opportunities into surfacing options through one or a combination of the highlighted examples below.


Color.JPG#asset:8946Many color options exist when considering poured-in-place (PIP), tile, or loose-fill material. Using various colors can help visually organize a play environment so that it makes sense to the user. Colors can provide visual cues and contrast around swing or slide exits to remind users that this is an active area and to proceed with caution, or create visual pathways throughout the play environment. Using designs or shapes in various colors can lead to spontaneous play behavior as children make up their own games and can also help bring learning outdoors in fun and creative ways.

Loose Parts

Portable materials or “loose parts” allow and stimulate spontaneous and creative play, and are a critical component of playground environments. Surfacing such as engineered wood fiber (EWF) can bring natural loose parts to the play environment that children often enjoy exploring or using in imaginative play. Sand or gravel used around PIP or EWF, can provide a multi-sensory experience as children use tools to construct and experiment with the material. Creating planting pockets outside use zone areas and more naturalized playgrounds that use child-friendly plants can provide additional loose parts for children to engage with.


Theme.JPG#asset:8947Themes can be dramatically carried out through surfacing designs, transforming the play environment into anything from a life size board game to a baseball field, or even an ocean surrounding a “ship.” Creative theming can make a play environment special and unique and often becomes the identifying factor of the park. Themes can promote dramatic play, encourage physical activity, prompt spontaneous games, and bring learning outdoors. The possibilities are endless!


Schools and parks are often looking for ways to bring fun learning opportunities outside for hands-on experiences and to promote engagement between children and family members. Consider the following examples as you think about ways to utilize PIP and tile surfacing design options to promote learning.

Math: Tic-Tac-Toe, Hopscotch, Numbers, Objects to Count, Various Sizes

Literacy: Sight Words, Functional Signs, Object Identification, Alphabet

Social Studies: Maps, Cultural/Community History

Science: Footprints, Animals, Leaves, Lifecycles

Games & Activities

Game-Activities.jpg#asset:8948Children need opportunities to learn how to cooperate, understand sportsmanship, and to follow rules of a simple game or activity. PIP and tile surfacing can offer exciting ways to incorporate favorite childhood games such as leap frog or four square, and it can help designate areas for activities that encourage physical activity such as trike paths and raceways where children can run, skip, hop to the “finish line.”

Enhance the play value of your next play or recreation project!

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