A research brief from the Urban Parks Institute

Research in the field of play reveals a dichotomy on how play is viewed. Most of the field is focused on play equipment, together with safety, liability and cost issues, while a smaller but increasingly vocal group of play experts (including environmental psychologists, child development specialists, landscape architects, educators) are advocating a reassessment of the play environment. Redesigning traditional playgrounds, (the familiar swings, slides and jungle gyms offering gross-motor play activities, often isolated from other activities) does not often result in significantly improved play opportunities; play experts recommend play environments which can answer to the needs of the community and individual users. They advocate the need to address the changing lives of children, families and the relationships with their environment in order to present more appropriate and fun play places.

Play experts contend that it is not only the lack of safe open space that has left many cities with lackluster play options, but some basic misconceptions about play itself. They say, to a child, play is serious work — a time to learn, discover, and create within an environment that is open to manipulation. This explains why more children prefer informal neighborhood places such as vacant lots and back alleys to organized playgrounds (Moore, 1985). While streets, greenways, and fields offer an endless range of activities and make-believe, most playgrounds force a child into a strict set of repeated motions.

At the same time, this type of unsupervised (and what experts call “unstructured”) play in the streets, woods and vacant lots, which defined the childhoods of earlier generations, is becoming ever more rare as parents fear for their children’s safety. In addition, the nature of unstructured play often does not gel with the busy programmed life of many families. Children are increasingly compartmentalized in a daily routine of shuttling between child-only settings; from childcare centers, to schools, to after school programs. To many adults, play is only a leftover time during which a child must be kept busy and out of mischief: yet another programmed activity to fit into a busy schedule (Friedberg).

Experts have found that parents and parks departments are depending more than ever on organized play spaces with equipment and recreation facilities, such as playgrounds, schoolyards and indoor play gyms. Teenagers, too, are generally steered to basketball courts or recreational facilities which are seen as a panacea for idle “at-risk” youth. But since they are quickly bored with these options, teens often turn to the streets as a place they can turn into their own — either by hanging out on the corner or skateboarding across sidewalks, stoops and plazas.

Research shows the play areas that are most satisfying reproduce the type of play previously experienced in the woods, streets and vacant lots, rather focusing solely on equipment (Hart). These play areas, commonly called adventure playgrounds (see below), depend on “loose parts,” such as water, sand, balls, and other manipulable materials.

In addition, research reveals that successful play areas offer the opportunity for interaction between age groups by offering something for everyone. Such places link play for different ages with social activities like eating and drinking. Providing leisure activities and social opportunities for adults also means that parents will stay longer, giving children more play time. For example, Isadora’s Restaurant at Granville Island, a park in Vancouver, BC, is situated so that a water park, picnic area, grassy fields and play structures are in easy view of the restaurant’s patio cafe. Parents can socialize over coffee while watching their children in a variety of play environments. Also, the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park is a place where all ages can climb or pose for pictures. A concession stand with tables and chairs nearby provides a place to get a snack and a chance to sit, eat, watch and socialize.

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