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Building stronger communities through play

Marcus Veerman is the driving force behind Playground Ideas, a non-profit organization on a mission to fight the devastating effects of childhood poverty. Using SketchUp and their online library of design resources, Marcus and the Playground Ideas team are working to create unique play spaces in developing communities around the world!

Building stronger communities through play

The Slide-A-Saurus Rex! This awesome playground was built in Guatemala in 2015 by Matt Green and Ancris Cabezas of Imagitlan, one of Playground Ideas’ Global Play Alliance members. (photo by Matt Green)

Hi Marcus, can you tell us a bit more about Playground Ideas and the inspiration behind the organization?

Playground Ideas’ goal is to support anyone, anywhere with the resources to create a stimulating place for play to fight the lifelong effects of poor early childhood development. Playground Ideas has already helped over 1455 communities in 85 countries, impacting an estimated 700,000 children.

10 years ago, I was living on the Thai-Burma border when a local NGO asked if I would help them build a playground. Throwing together a design and a crew of volunteers, we set to work. Before we finished that first playground, the headmaster of a neighboring school asked if we could help them do the same. And so it began. Requests began pouring in and over the next two years a rag-tag gang of volunteers, artists, and makers built 40 playgrounds along the Thai-Burma border. That’s when Playground Ideas began and our open-source website of playground resources was created.

Playground Idea’s based on locally available materials

Playground Idea’s imaginative designs, based on locally available materials, help transform the landscape of this Thai village.

How can playgrounds improve early stage childhood development?

Right now, a staggering 43% of children under five years of age in low and middle income countries are failing to reach their full developmental potential. Two-thirds of primary age children in the developing world are failing to meet the minimum benchmarks of learning after four years of school. It is estimated that the result of poor early development can lead to a 30% loss of adult productivity every year.

SketchUp enables us to share our designs with people regardless of the language they speak or the country they live in. Anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection can see our designs and start building.

The good news is that longitudinal studies conducted over the last 50 years have shown that early childhood play-based programs can have huge impacts on the education and long-term life impacts of children living in poverty. We believe that communities across the globe already have the resources and skills to create amazing play spaces. What they need is support in the form of ideas, designs, and a bit of technical know-how. This is where Playground Ideas comes in.

Tire Octopus in SketchUp

The Tire Octopus is a favorite from the Playground Ideas catalog. It’s been replicated in countless playgrounds around the world and is always a huge hit with the kids!

The number of communities your projects have impacted in the past decade is absolutely astonishing! How has SketchUp enabled you to scale your reach with such a small team?

SketchUp has been foundational to Playground Ideas and to our core concept of empowering local people using local materials to create the changes they want to see in their communities. All of our designs are first created in SketchUp and then we use those files to develop step-by-step building plans. SketchUp enables us to share our designs with people regardless of the language they speak, or the country they live in. Anyone with access to a computer and an internet connection can see our designs and start building.

Your strategy for creating play spaces is centered around using locally available materials and construction skills. How does SketchUp allow you to draw on the creative talents of local project coordinators?

All of our designs and playground elements are designed to be built by communities themselves, using locally sourced materials that are recycled or low cost, and easily available. We deliberately keep the designs fairly generic so that readers can fill in the gaps with their knowledge of materials.

One issue we found is that it’s difficult for some people to visualize architectural plans and how their space will actually appear. SketchUp allows us to provide accurate visual representations of designs using materials such as tires, pipes, bamboo, and steel drums that people are familiar with. This enables people to not only replicate the designs but gives them the foundation to come up with their own creative solutions after they get the basic idea in their heads.

In response to this need you have created a design process that seems to be centered around the notion of play. Can you tell us about the playground design tool on your website?

Our aim is to provide all the resources needed for anyone to create their own play space. We want to provide our users with a tool that allows them to create a professional site plan of their playground as easily as possible. For many of our users, even a tool as simple as SketchUp is too complex for them to learn when they’re only going to create one project.

SketchUp models of playground elements

Playground Idea’s Unity-based design tool allows users to populate their construction site with SketchUp models of playground elements

Our first tool was a paper-based cut and paste playground designer which is still available from our website. We then created a digital version of this manual which was never robust enough to launch. After working with the amazing volunteers at Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) we worked out a way to combine the power of SketchUp with the Unity game engine and - boom! Anyone can now use our 3D playground design game to create a full playground plan in minutes.

You mentioned that you try to incorporate traditional games and methods of play in your projects. What is the most unique playground element or game you have seen?

incorporate traditional games and methods of play

One of the most unique play spaces we helped to design was on the grounds of the Ruben Centre, a primary school for 2,000 kids in the Mukuru slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Designs focused on facilitating imaginative, yet practical play rooted in the real life surroundings of the student's lives and the life skills the community was working to instill in these children.

Many of the children had experienced illness so we added a mini hospital and pharmacy area. This was based on the idea that children could explore their current reality from different perspectives through role play, which can be very healing, and allows children to better understand their current situation.


This is pretty darn inspiring. What can the SketchUp community do to get involved?

At Playground Ideas our goal is to keep play free which is why funding from our generous sponsors and individual public donations matter. 100% of public donations go towards supporting our global community of DIY play makers. We’d love if the SketchUp community could donate even just $1 each to Playground Ideas so we can continue to expand global access to play.

We’re also always on the lookout for volunteer interns who can come up with new, interesting designs that can be added to our design library, and used by people in communities all over the world.

About the Author

Steven enjoys backcountry skiing, strong cups of coffee and biking to work. He can often be found riding the chairlifts of Eldora Mountain Resort with the SketchUp Ski Club or slacklining in the parks around Boulder. Originally from Monterey, CA, Steven joined the SketchUp team after studying at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Profile Photo of Steven Griffin