Playgrounds – City Oases for Children

In a paper titled “Is there a place for children in a city?” Arza Churchman (2003) asks the following question: Does the city, through its design and planning, and through the attitudes and behaviour of adults, transmit the message to the children that they are welcome, that they are an equal part of the society in the city? Just think of all the limitations children are faced with due to (reasonable!) safety concerns of their parents, limitations that become more and more constraining with each new generation. With significantly less privacy and freedom then before,  constantly supervised by adults (unless they’re “babysat” by TV of PC), the children of today may be receiving the message that the environment we’ve created is not a friendly place for them.

photo by guilmay

There are little oases amid the noisy confusion of life though, that celebrate children’s most important activity – play. It has been stated that independent and diverse play and exploration is important to children’s development, specifically their motor skills and physical health, cognitive development, social relationships with peers  and formations of connections with the natural world (Kyttä, 2004).

photo by gynti_46

So what do the children have to say about the topic of playground design? They prefer play spaces that include a variety of play equipment, proximity to other park space rather than to housing and parking, and physical enclosure (dense trees and a fence), which prevents pedestrians from trespassing through play areas (Min and  Lee, 2006). They also want their playgrounds to look clean and provide areas for social and group activity  (Jansson, 2008).

photo by Peter E. Lee

Playgrounds that meet children’s expectations foster play behaviour – children engage in more kinds of play, more intentional play, more social play, more prolonged play, and play that makes use of particular environmental features (Min and  Lee, 2006).

photo by veesees

There is an age difference in what children value the most – while older children (aged 11 to 12) value playing fields with minimum interference from other age groups,  younger children (aged 7 to 8 ) place more value on playgrounds with interesting play equipment and suitable spatial dimensions (Min and  Lee, 2006).

photo by Mike Riversdale

When it comes to equipment design, there are some comparisons between traditional and comprehensive playgrounds. Traditional playground design is focused only on physical and motor skill development and includes jungle gyms, slides, and playing fields.  Creative/comprehensive playground design  incorporates traditional elements among natural elements and pathways to facilitate exploration and learning. Such play areas include water, loose materials and trees (Malone and Trant, 2003).

photo by Sandy Austin

As one would expect, different equipment fosters different kinds of play. Fixed structured playgrounds, paved areas, and open fields support physical and motor skill activities; and seating, tables, and indoor areas support social or quiet play activities  (Malone and Trant, 2003). Natural surroundings and trees  provide a place for imaginative play (e.g. fort building), alternative activities from the playground, and social relationship building through group play (Jansson, 2008). According to some researchers, natural elements support cognitive activities, too (Malone and Trant, 2003).

 Playground at the Forestry Preserve; photo by VickyvS

Social relationships formation is also related to some aspects of playground design. In playgrounds dominated by fixed play structures children establish social hierarchy based on physical prowess, while in playgrounds with natural features and vegetation social hierarchy is based more on children’s communication skills and creativity. (Malone and Trant, 2003).

photo by VickyvS

In short, children are reliable experts on what playgrounds should look like. Creative playgrounds and natural elements expand the variety of activities, and can positively  impact social relationships. If you belive that children deserve a place where they can be careless and spontaneous, imaginative and uninhibited, than you probably agree that designing play areas should be done with special care and sensitivity. Within the strict boundaries and tight schedules so many of the children live by today, we may allow them to get a gimpse of what childhood should be all about, at least according to some old-fashioned romantic idealists.

A place for children in The City – Playground in Central Park, NY; photo by Stephane Enten

References

1. Churchman, A. (2003) Is There a Place for Children in the City? Journal of Urban Design, 8, 2, 99-111.

2. Jansson, M. (2008). Children’s Perspectives on Public Playgrounds in Two Swedish Communities. Children, Youth and Environments, 18,2,88-109.

3. Kyttä, M. (2004). The Extent of Children’s Independent Mobility and the Number of Actual Affordances as Criteria for Child-Friendly Environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24,1-2,179-198.

4. Malone, K.  and Tranter, P.(2003) Children’s Environmental Learning and the Use, Design and Management of Schoolgrounds. Children, Youth and Environments, 13,2.

5. Min, B. and Lee, J. (2006). Children’s Neighborhood Place as a Psychological and Behavioral Domain. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 26,1,51-71.

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