What does it take to design a fantastic play space (or playce)? We have regularly visited new schools with the latest gadgets, playground markings and more. Yet the staff do not know how to best use their outdoor space for learning, and the children are not quite settled in it. This blog explores what I learned during a visit to the Finnish Embassy in London for an event on Designing Urban Playces of the Future – Inspirational, Inclusive, and Smart.
Whether you are designing a school playground or a community playpark, many elements are in common. In fact, as a teacher, if we had a high-quality park close to the school, we could and would use this to support learning. My discussions with town planners, architects, landscapers, and play park designers helped me see what is involved in building a great play space.
In discussions, we explored what makes a perfect outdoor space—a space for all all genders, all ages, and all physical and mental abilities. Spaces for learning but also to play. Spaces that can support mental health as well as physical health. But how do we do that?
Design is Key
There is so much that you can put into an outdoor space; it is not just about it looking pretty but instead being versatile and usable for a range of purposes and groups.
One great discussion I had with a couple of landscape architects who have designed school playgrounds focused on their use of playground markings. They are pretty standard in most schools. Even schools that do not have them will often fundraise for them (for those in Scotland, the Thrive fundraising document can be helpful). I am not a huge fan of most designs. They can be too constricting. A hopscotch grid with numbers can be used for traditional play, for practising times tables and number bonds, but not a lot else. A hopscotch grid that has the outline but no numbers simply requires chalk and can be used to explore emotions, modern languages, help children learn about time, develop vocabulary, and so much more (see some ideas in our Hopscotch Ideas blog). A 100 grid with numbers is much the same, only usable for a limited amount of learning, but when you take away the numbers and have the grid, it opens up learning opportunities.
The same is often true of the equipment in a playground. Schools are keen on trim trials, outdoor classrooms, and book sheds. There are some great pieces of equipment that can combine all three (like the Lappset Planetarium). But, often, schools are not aware of the great equipment out there and stick to what has been done before, rather than reaching for something new and exciting.
When designing school playgrounds, either a designer will select the markings and equipment, or the catalogue will be passed to the school staff to select. While it is great to get the school and community involvement, often, they are not sure what will work best and select what looks pretty. There is merit in that, but when markings and equipment can be used for so much more, is it not worth listening to those who know how best to use playgrounds for learning? Many teachers have not undertaken learning in outdoor learning and are unsure what would genuinely benefit the learning and teaching outdoors.
Pulling You In
Talking to other designers, I was told that good design pulls you into a landscape. We can all think of playgrounds that we did not like, they did not feel comfortable, or maybe there were a lot of behavioural issues when children were in that space. I often see new build schools with tiny playgrounds, nowhere near big enough for the number of children they will hold during breaks. This leads to split breaks, limiting social interactions and friendships, or behavioural issues as children are hemmed in with no space to play. It can also happen at older schools (it was just this week that I saw a headline saying children were not allowed to play running games at an Edinburgh school due to lack of space). The same is often true for parks. Sometimes the only space available is too small, and the same issues can occur in the community, divisions and issues with relationships. There are some great examples of small parks that create magic, like Jupiter Play’s Bargarren Park.
But more than this, how parks are used by different ages and sexes matter. There is the Make Space for Girls movement that reminds us that parks are not just about boys playing football. The law states that parks should be for everyone.
Careful design and consideration as to how it can and will be used are key.
The Hours Matter
There is, of course, the cost of design. Talking to Lappset, I learned that one of the most critical factors in determining the quality of playground equipment is the hours of play it engages people in. Yalp have a phenomenal interactive range of equipment that provides in-depth information. I found it fascinating how patterns of play change around the world. In very hot places, families will play late into the night. In contrast, children in the UK do not tend to be out after dinner (though teenagers, who are also attracted to their parks – have you seen their Fono DJ booth?! – tend to be out later)—adapting the parks, whether putting lighting in or more shelters, makes a difference in how they are used. Many schools have excellent equipment, and more and more are allowing the wider community to access their grounds outside school hours. In the UK, we have an obesity crisis. Kids who are in parks are moving. We also have a mental health crisis. Kids in parks tend to be socialising and getting the wide ranging benefits of being outdoors. Yet, we also lock play equipment away. Does this make sense? Is there another way?
In four generations, our children’s right to roam has been eroded. Many factors influence this, including the rise of social media and the perception that the world is not as safe anymore (studies show the opposite, and it is safer for children now compared to the past). Less than 100 years ago, children could roam, unsupervised, to a distance of around 6 miles at just eight years old. But, by 1950, this had already reduced to just one mile. In the mid 70s, children could only explore their local estate. Children today are allowed to roam just 275 meters from home. We have gone from miles to meters in just four generations. My niece is currently pregnant; I wonder how far her child and those of the next generation will be able to roam.
This is why access to play and learning spaces is vital. We know they need to be close for children to access them. I have heard of house builders adding to the price of houses surrounding a park. This is due to the need for parents to feel comfortable; they often feel they need to be able to see their children. This means parents are paying a premium. But it also means additional money is available to invest in great parks and play spaces.
A Park Is More Than Just Play
The distance children can travel from home is one of many issues impacting playces today. Risky play needs to be considered as well. We are increasingly living in a sanitised, risk averse world. Indeed, one of the nurseries we work with received a complaint this week about the ground in the woodland they use being unlevel! When children could roam, we got into all sorts of mischief and survived! We learned how our bodies worked and where our limits were (fair enough, my scarred knees show I overstepped that sometimes but that was me learning). We learned how to keep ourselves safe. We learned how to navigate friendships and arguments. We learned to tell the time! When children play so close to home, the opportunity to do this can be constrained. But, through careful consideration, some of these challenges could become design features.
Parks Are More Than Just Equipment
I had a great conversation with Edward from Parks for London about how we create natural areas in urban environments. I shared my recent visit to Queen Margaret University and the development of their Wee Forest. A Wee Forest is a tennis court-sized, densely planted, fast growing, native species rich woodland in urban Scotland which combines the specific Miywaki planting method with long term school and community engagement through citizen science and volunteering. This is a great, low cost, but effective way to create greenspace. It encourages community involvement, which is excellent for developing a sense of place (which in turn supports mental health and relationships and even positively impacts the development of sustainable attitudes). But possibly the critical aspect, especially in a densely packed city, is that it only needs a tiny amount of space. Most schools have a small space that could develop into a wee forest. But failing that, a planter garden can also help. But we could also be putting these wee forests into our urban community areas, allowing them to offer more than just a place to play but a way of supporting and creating a sustainable world.
Design is Not Enough
I am the first to admit that I have no idea about how the design industry works. This event provided a great glimpse into this world. But, sometimes, looking in from the outside means seeing things that those working within can struggle to see.
There seemed to be a disconnect in how outdoor spaces are designed. Ray Hole, a world leading architect, and I had a great discussion about it. When working on a project, he uses a round table approach, where everyone has equal importance, and each view is listened to. But, more importantly, where different disciplines pull together to create something unique. It is not just the obvious disciplines from architecture and design pulling together; where a project allows, he will also include psychologists and other experts to create a strong team which leads to an amazing space.
Collaboration is key to designing amazing outdoor playces. While a landscape architect knows how to pull people into an area, they do not know how to design equipment that will fully immerse and engage children and young people. The play designer may not understand the psychology of what children want, need and desire. The psychologist may not understand how those desires can be harnessed to engage and develop learning. The teachers may need support in how to utilise the space fully they are provided with, and the outdoor educational consultant may have no idea about the logistics of building a site. But, if we all work together, we can create amazing playces which are fit for the future. Vans and International Women’s Day, McDonald’s and Beyond Meat have all formed unlikely partnerships which benefit society. There is no reason why strong bonds cannot be created across sectors that all aim to support children and young people.