The Best Trees for Play Areas

Trees are a welcome addition to a play area, whether in a public park or private backyard. Trees used to shade the play area must be non-toxic, strong-wooded, non-prickly, lack surface roots, and not pose hazards with dropping debris. The best tree to use is region and climate-specific, as some plants simply will not survive inhospitable growing conditions such as winter cold or droughts, for example.

Non-Toxic Plant Parts

Children love to explore and investigate their surroundings. A tree in the play area must not have toxic components. Fallen leaves, fruits or interesting flowers that can cause skin rashes or introduce toxic chemicals into a child's body after being tasted or fully chewed and digested must be avoided. Oleander (Nerium oleander) foliage, flowers and stems contain fatal toxins and any cherry tree (Prunus spp.) has twigs and bark that release cyanide when eaten. Other trees that should be investigated, especially if children are prone to putting things in their mouths, include oak (Quercus), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) and rhododendron.

Strong-Wooded and Structured

Choose trees that have strong wood, or branches and trunks that are steadfast in winds and typical thunderstorms experienced in your region. Low-hanging branches will be tugged, pulled and often climbed upon by children, too. Boxelder (Acer negundo) is a weak-wooded tree best avoided.

Unarmed Branches, Trunks and Fruits

Some trees species have spines, thorns or burs of stems that can scrape arms or puncture young fingers. Even when branches are well-above the play area out of the reach of children, fallen twigs are readily stepped upon or casually encountered during a trip or fall. Hawthorns (Craetagus spp.) have long thorns in their branches, and the hard fruits of sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) are painful when sat or fallen upon

No Surface Roots

Certain tree species, especially those that are adapted to growing in wet or compacted soils, often have surface-dwelling roots. The roots run along the soil line, creating tripping hazards. Red maple (Acer rubrum) often causes troubles in play areas.

Harmless Debris

An excellent tree for a play area will also lack hazardous falling debris. Some popular palms, like the coconut (Cocos nucifera) and royal palm (Roystonea regia) are not sound choices as they drop large, heavy fruits or massive, heavy fronds, respectively. Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) sheds hundreds of spiny seed balls in fall and winter while large-sized evergreen holly trees (Ilex) can leave rigid, dried pointy leaf debris on the ground.

Piquing Interest

Nonetheless, a tree in a play area casts protective and comfortable shade; it should also provide some interest to pique the curiosity of children. The tree can have any sort of visual or sensory interest, ranging from an uniquely shaped or colored leaf to having a bark that resembles the skin of an animal. Flowering trees are always popular, as are trees that have seeds that have a curious shape or name.

Keywords: playground trees, safe trees, trees and child safety

About this Author

James Burghardt has written for The Public Garden, Docent Educator, numerous non-profit newsletters and for's comprehensive plant database. He holds a Master's degree in Public Horticulture from the University of Delaware and studied horticulture and biology in Australia at Murdoch University and the University of Melbourne's Burnley College.