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Design and Maintenance: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

The Design phase of the project is where all the research and information you’ve gathered so far can come together to develop and create the actual site plan. The brainstorming sessions and visionary ideas can finally be honed to a realistic design plan. You only get one chance for a first impression so make your first phase look amazing!


There are many things to consider in the design process including programming, cost, maintenance, usability. The list could go on and on. While playground equipment may be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of elementary schools, there are many other design options that can be incorporated including berms, open grassy areas, trees, tunnels, sport courts, walls, outdoor classrooms, stages, boulders, gardens, and courtyards. All these things provide play opportunities and promote the imagination. While many people might assume that the materials and playground equipment for a large scale project would mirror landscape and play structure projects they’ve encountered on a personal level, because of the high volume and high impact usage of outdoor educational spaces in elementary schools, the materials must be made to withstand the daily use, abide with all public safety regulations, pass playground and insurance inspections, and thus are much more expensive. While in the design process, it is tempting to go with the lowest cost option, one of the most essential considerations to include is the maintenance plan.

Making the right investment decisions up-front can have a massive impact

on your long-term costs and maintenance. Especially in the public education space, having a well-formed and quantifiable maintenance plan could be the make-or-break factor for a school district getting on board with all your plans.

Cost prohibitive installations that require frequent and expensive upkeep usually have one of two results: the district shuts down the project before it begins because they don’t have the staff or funds to maintain the project, or the project is completed and quickly deteriorates because it is not properly maintained. We’ve all seen projects where large investments in outdoor spaces quickly withered or deteriorated due to a lack of proper maintenance. Playground installations that took the cheapest way out quickly show signs of wear and tear or even breakdown because volume and usage wasn’t considered in the initial investment. Taking care in the design phase to assess available resources for maintenance and matching that to your design and installation ensures a durable and efficient outcome that can be enjoyed for years to come.


One aspect of your design considerations that can greatly affect maintenance is your play surface. We reached out to one of our frequent project partners, ForeverLawn*, to get their expert knowledge on comparing durability, longevity, and maintenance requirements for different types of surfaces. For example, using sod for sports fields or under play surfacing requires constant watering, mowing at least weekly, and is highly sensitive to environmental conditions. If the weather is too wet, you quickly get a mud pit. If the area is exposed to heavy foot traffic, it can become worn down, patchy, or dead in areas.

One thing to remember is that for most, the school year encompasses the months of September-May when grass is primarily in a dormant state.

While Forever Lawn’s turf products require around a 25% higher initial investment, they have a proven track record of lasting around 20 years with no replacements needed and can be maintained with periodic leaf blowing and a bi-annual run over with a power broom. While it’s easy to get stuck on the up-front investment price, considering all the long-term maintenance and durability options ensures you are protecting your investment for the long-haul and providing a product that your school can enjoy fully for years to come.


(*For more information and research about grassing and surface options, visit


Another consideration to take into your design and maintenance phase is researching your specific school district’s maintenance abilities. It is not uncommon that these departments are short on funding and understaffed. Having that conversation about realistic upkeep goals with your district can help ensure your investment is protected.

Along with all the design considerations, creating a realistic and practical phasing plan is really where the rubber meets the road in the project’s successful implementation. Knowing which components of a project can be done within a certain budget and an appropriate sequence that protects the overall project is essential. This is where having experts in the fields of outdoor space design becomes prudent. At MHS Planning & Design, we have over 30 years of experience in helping clients take their outdoor space projects from conception to completion and we have a passion to expand this experience into creating realistic outdoor educational spaces in the public education domain.


(*To learn more about ForeverLawn and their surfacing options, please visit


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