An interview with Roger Hart and Selim Iltus of Children’s Environments Research Group at City University of New York (CUNY). Hart and Iltus have done extensive research into play and components of successful play environments that can be incorporated into today’s parks and playgrounds. From Park Talk, the newsletter of the Urban Parks Institute.

Could you give us your opinion about the state of the art of play today in the United States and our ability to provide good play environments?

 

First of all, while it’s clear that the social issues which impact parks are different than they were 20 years ago and there is a lot of debate about welfare reform and workfare, no one talks about how these issues affect children. For example, when people talk about crime and crime reduction, they need to also discuss how play and playgrounds fit into crime prevention. It’s amazing that at the same time that crime has increased, recreation funding has gone down.

If people in this country want to be serious about creating safe spaces for young people’s development, they have to increase play area staffing, and they’ve got to stop talking about play equipment as a solution. We’d even go so far as to say that if we had spaces that were almost undifferentiated, without play equipment, but they had two play leaders in them, we’d have much better programs in this country.

We feel that as parks departments’ resources have dwindled, and the private sector is stepping in to meet people’s recreational needs, new roles for government are required. Government has an overseeing role to play that private companies will not provide. Parks departments as the responsible public agency now need to monitor issues of equity in provision much more than they have in the past. If we are to rely on corporations, the private world and people’s ability to write proposals as the way to create public space and play opportunities, then some communities will wind up being much better served than others. City-wide research on access to recreational resources by different social classes and groups should become a new division of a responsible parks department during this era of privatization.

The second new thing parks departments need to do is provide technical assistance to communities, particularly low-income ones, on how to establish their own play schemes close to their homes.

What do you think the reason is that adequate play opportunities are not being developed?

 

The first problem is that play is not really top on anybody’s agenda. The middle class have responded to the crisis of safe public play provision by buying all kinds of private alternatives: “pay-for-play” centers, children’s museums, private gym clubs, after-school classes, etc. They are not making demands for public play spaces as much. The poor usually do not know how to make such demands. Also, no one has taken an overall look at coordinating play provision. For example, agencies that deal with child development generally don’t have anything to do with parks departments. And neither agency thinks they have anything to do with schools. Each agency reaches one aspect of children’s needs. But there is likely to be overlap; and certainly there are gaps. If all of the agencies were more aware of what each other was doing and who provides what service, together they could address children’s needs in a more significant way.

An additional problem in providing good public play environments, as we all know, is the fear of lawsuits. This is something we’ve been thinking about as part of our work in community gardens. In community gardens, we design play areas that do not include play equipment for active gross-motor play, such as swings, slides and climbing frames, where injuries can occur. These play areas tend to satisfy equally important types of activities for children even though they are more sedentary. They include social play, construction play, sensory play and of course, gardening, Facilities such as playhouses, sand tables, benches, easel chalkboards, planting beds and toolsheds not only enable the kinds of play most compatible with the quiet retreat-like qualities of community gardens, but also are the types of activities that are frequently missing from the lives of poor inner-city children.

Given the limited public understanding of the term “play,”, there may be a benefit in using the words “children’s area” rather than “play area”. If you say there is a “play area” available, parents might tend to think: “Oh there’s a playground at the community garden… Great, let’s go let the kids work out, swing and climb…” However, if you called it a “children’s area,” people don’t have the same expectations. To us, construction play, sensory play, social play and the like are valuable components of play, and we would love to improve the public’s general recognition of this.

How would you see the idea of developing play opportunities in conjunction with other facilities and institutions spreading?

 

For not very much money, community gardens could have the kinds of play opportunities described above established in areas of urban parks located near child-care centers, and they could be natural parts of all schoolyards, especially at schools with preschool programs. Improving schoolyards is something that’s really taking off in this country, under great influence from Europe. The movement began in the United Kingdom as an initiative of the central government. An inspector for the Department of Education and Science had the insight to establish a program called “Learning through Landscapes” to look critically at the existing uses of schoolyards. As a result of this program, a national non-profit organization was established whose staff goes all over the country working with schools. Teachers have the children themselves evaluate their own schoolyards and the way they are used (both by kids as well as by wildlife) as a first step in transforming them into rich places for play. Creative additions to urban schoolyards that have come out of the program include secret gardens, story-teller’s chairs and ceramic murals. There is a central belief in this program that free play in natural settings is a superior way to foster an affection for the natural world.

You spoke earlier about play leaders, that even a relatively bare or vacant lot, if it had play leaders in it, would be a great play environment. What is it that play leaders provide?

 

Play leaders facilitate play in amazing ways, setting the stage for children to create their own play. They supply loose parts. Stationary playground equipment, designed for only one type of play, can never be as creative a spur to play as a pile of wood, old wheels and so on. Play leaders can introduce natural and manipulable elements to parks, since in their supervisory capacity they can offer a combination of protection of the site, arbitration of occasional conflicts and even the provision of tools. “Adventure playgrounds,” found in North European countries, are usually for children over 8 years of age, but at a recent one in a Tokyo park, play leaders have pre-school children building mud dams, making fires and creating structures with the leaders.

We understand that you have an idea for a national play training institute. Could you explain what that is?

 

Yes, we are responding to the needs of both low-income communities and the managers of pay-for-play spaces who need their staff to be trained. Ideally parks departments would also decide to send their staff to the institute because in the technical assistance role we spoke of, they could then train low-income parents to be play leaders. There would probably be two levels of people trained at the institute – one would be low-income parents, who would be trained to organize their housing project, to do play schemes at little or no cost around the building. They would get paid a low wage, but they’d be close to home, with their own children. But there’s another level, too, which would be community play organizers trained in social work, or youth work, or both, who would know how to help parents go about the business of setting up play schemes. He or she would train the local play leaders, give them technical advice, and help them use local parks and other open areas as safe play spaces.

Many parks are thinking of creating new play areas. How should they start? What are the first things they should consider?

1. Age Groups

It’s important to consider all age groups, as we’re seeing more visits of entire families to play areas. Within this space, have special opportunities for infants/toddlers, pre-school, lower elementary, and spaces for organized games (like soccer, volleyball and jump-roping), which the 9 and over crowd will enjoy.

2. Needs of Girls

The play needs of girls are often forgotten – also, their freedom to travel is commonly restricted, further minimizing their play options. Since it’s important to find out what the kids want in their play area via a participatory process, talk to the girls separately at first. We find that young adolescent girls say very little in a mixed group unless they have first met as a separate group. Then have a big discussion together. You’ll find girls like volleyball and basketball; but they might not want to declare this in front of their boy peers.

3. Supervised play

Lots of things can happen once you have supervision. Loose parts create an interactive play area – and if you have someone who maintains and supervises the area, the restrictions of having only traditional play equipment disappear.

4. Biodiverse Terrain

Play equipment is secondary. Primary is finding or creating a terrain which is topographically diverse and biodiverse, with hills, ravines and a great diversity of vegetation. Play structures can then complement the terrain, with slides, bridges, tunnels and climbing opportunities occurring naturally in the landscape.

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