“People like to sit where there are places for them to sit”, said urban sociologist William “Holly” Whyte in his revolutionary book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. He spent over a decade in the 60s and 70s observing the social behaviours of thousands of people in public spaces across New York City, and his seemingly simple findings have impacted planning policies of cities around the globe.
Could this same research work in a similar social typology…the urban playground? Do “people like to play where there are places for them to play”? Or is there more to it? What affordances should we create in our cities to allow play to happen? What encourages play in our youngest children (under fives)? What attracts teens? How do we encourage play throughout our lifetimes, supporting healthy adults and seniors?
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Studio Ludo, a non-profit focused on play research, design and advocacy, sought to answer these questions. We spent six months observing the play behaviours of over 18,000 people in 16 London playgrounds and compared the findings to similar spaces in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.
The results, released earlier this year, were startling: the London playgrounds had 55% more visitors than their American counterparts, with significantly more physical activity, and had an equal number of adults and kids. They also cost, on average, one-third less to build.
These play spaces, traditionally thought of as serving only children, were actually a rich community resource
While the playgrounds were selected based on design uniqueness, variety in size and demographics and equal distribution in London, the clear commonality was that they blurred the boundary between play space and park. They had comfortable places to sit, often in shade. Cafés and restrooms were within easy walking distance. Most had considerable grass areas, plantings and passive spaces for adults to relax and spend time.
These play spaces, traditionally thought of as serving only children, were actually a rich community resource. So, based on this research, here are five key ingredients for urban playground success.
1. Support all ages
Different ages have different needs. Develop user profiles to understand how all ages will use the space.
Younger children: Use a meter stick as a guide (the average three year old is 95cm). Are elements the right height to sit or play on? Are there plenty of textures and loose parts? Are features too spread out for little legs? Are spaces for caregivers nearby, for social interaction?
Older children: Are there plenty of opportunities to move, run, swing, climb and dig? Are there places to be with friends? Are caregivers nearby, but not interfering with play?
Teens: Are there places to hang out? Are there riskier, more physical elements like parkour, climbing walls, skate parks, or sport courts?
Adults and seniors: Are there nice places to sit? Clear sight lines? Is there a bathroom? Where do they park a stroller, or set up a blanket for snacks or picnics? What about shade? Does it feel safe?
2. Play everywhere
Think outside the catalogue. Provide “play affordances”, such as boulders, logs, plants and topography for inexpensive, but effective fun. These elements partner well with manufactured play equipment.
Experiment with surfaces. Many of the London playgrounds used grass, rubber matting, sand and bark. These have play value as loose parts and have significant cost savings over their counterparts in comparable US playgrounds, which utilise primarily poured-in-place rubber or rubber tile.
3. Design for joy
There is nothing more thrilling than moving your body at top speeds or at great heights
There is nothing more thrilling than moving your body at top speeds or being at great heights. Your brain rewards you with endorphins and it feels great! Climbing and swinging are the most popular play activities and a must on every playground.
Sliding and spinning are also attractive for all ages, particularly if scaled up for adult use. The best playgrounds provide opportunities for risk and adventure, but are completely safe, offering ways to play based on skill level, strength and bravery.
4. No play jails
Freedom should be integral to the play experience and comes from two things…the ability of the environment to provide it and the ability of a caregiver to give it.
Kids are attracted to non-prescriptive structures that allow for freedom of movement and physical stimulation. They also spend a lot of time moving from feature to feature, which is a crucial part of the play experience and not just a commute. Open space is an essential feature of a playground.
Caregivers need the security of containment, so boundaries are a must. But the most successful playgrounds did not feel caged in. Consider low perimeter fencing, a sensory or music wall, playful seating, or a planted buffer to provide an edge while allowing the play space to feel like part of its surroundings.
5. Bring out the kid in everyone
Ask yourself…What was your favourite play memory and where? What kinds of play memories do you want your children to have? How can we build environments that make those experiences a reality?
In America, by 2035, we will have more people above the age of 65 than under the age of 18. This is a global trend, with some countries projecting as many as 10 times the number of adults to children by 2050. Creating spaces that resonate with cultural memories of play, as well as support children’s needs now, will create happier, healthier communities of all ages.
Play keeps us young, through physical activity, and makes us more resilient, through social connection. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.” — Meghan Talarowski
(Picture credit: Studio Ludo)