Creating Playspaces by and for Children

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

by Roger Hart,

Children's Environments Research Group

An edited version of a presentation given by Professor Hart at the conference, "Article 31: The Child's Right to Play", held in Birmingham, England on 22 June 1994. With numerous national and international examples, Hart presents the benefits and misconceptions of children's participation in creating and transforming their play spaces.

"Play" and "work" in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The references to play in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child have very different implications for children in different countries. The play articles are a particularly important provision for children in those countries we now call "The South" or the "Third World", where many children are engaged in exploitative work for extremely long hours with no opportunity for play. For industrially advanced countries, like the United Kingdom, where exploitative work has long been banished for all but a small minority of children, most children do have opportunities to play. The question is, what kind of play. For clues to this we have to look beyond Articles 7 and 31, the specific sections dealing with play, to the Convention as a whole. It emphasises strongly a child's right to grow into meaningful roles in society as full, democratic, participating citizens. Too much play theory and research emphasises the individual and particularly individual children's learning and creativity through play, rather than a child's relationship with others, particularly their peers. This psychological emphasis on the individual has found its way solidly into the popular media and the language of parents and schools.

We need a re-emphasis on play as a place where children build friendships and indeed build culture and community.Most parents in the industrialised countries also seem to have forgotten the value of work in a child's development. Removal of work from children's lives began in the early 19th century with the honourable goal of protecting children from exploitation. Then we gradually extended childhood by increasing the school learning age. Now, many never get to experience the pleasure of meaningful work during their childhoods. It is a missed opportunity to not offer children work as an informal training ground to develop their competence and sense of ability to make a meaningful contribution. There is little chance for children to learn that work can, and should, be more than just earning money. Children are thirsting to exercise their work competence. Anyone who has observed a group of eight-year-olds trying to dam a stream knows that what is called "play" often looks more like work: defining goals for themselves, planning with one another and busily carrying them out. The only time playgrounds in the USA are really exciting for children seems to be when they are being built, for there are lots of materials for them to work with. Once they are finished the playgrounds quickly become boring. It is difficult to say where work ends and play begins sometimes but central to the distinction are the words "voluntary" and "pleasurable". People who love their jobs, you could say, are playing.

In the industrialised countries, opportunities for meaningful work should be fostered more, for in these activities children learn how to be competent, co-operative, resourceful and discover the joys of getting a job done; the growth areas of play provision today are, by contrast, in play as entertainment.Last year I spent some time with a group of children in the Brazilian Amazon. They are struggling with the same desires for competence and to engage in meaningful activities as children in this country, but in a very different environment. Certainly they do a lot of what people usually think of as play. They took me to their favourite play place in the forest and showed me how to swing from gigantic lianas hanging from the trees. But, like most children throughout the Third World a large proportion of young children are engaged in work most of the time, particularly the girls. Play is something that is snatched now and then between work activities.

However, for many children this is not exploitative work. One of the problems the international children's agencies and the International Labour Union is going to have in interpreting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is when work is acceptable and when work is not. Even today in the United Kingdom new immigrant groups still struggle to establish an economic footing in the country by employing their children with the whole family. This often brings them into conflict with the law but it is hard for me to think of this as more damaging to children than preparing them through years of not so relevant schooling for a world of unemployment!In summary, there is need for debate in the playwork community about play and work in relation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is a mistake to pull out "play" and "work" and declare one as the desirable and the other as undesirable. In this country, like the United States, I feel there is a growing loss of understanding of what kind of society we are preparing children for. We need more debate on the place of play and work together in children's' development and indeed in development throughout the life cycle.

Playworkers as children's rights advocates: Adults generally participate too much in creating children's play settings. Much of play theory tells us that it is beneficial for children to be able to create and transform the environment themselves. I believe that one of the key roles of playworkers is to confront the trend toward the programming of children's space and time; to act as advocates for children's free play and to educate parents and others about this (see Hart 1976; 1983; Children's Environments, 1992). Playworkers understand the need to set the stage for play and to allow children to write their own scripts. While I believe that what we really need is an un-planning of the environment for children's play, the realities of the contemporary urban landscape tells us that we do have to create special preserves for children to play (See Hart 1976 and 1983 for a discussion of un-planning the British landscape for children). We should at least involve children in the planning and design of play settings.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child calls for children to express their views "freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child". What more obvious than for children to have a say with adults in the planning and design of play facilities, and in the day-to-day running of them. The reason why I like adventure playgrounds so much is that this idea is built right into the concept; at least the concept of what adventure playgrounds were originally supposed to be (Benjamin, 1976).The so-called "participation articles" are proving to be the most difficult for people in the industrialised countries to interpret. Whether children should have a voice, and when they should have a voice is a very controversial subject, and children's participation in public life is an area that people are really struggling with. The "ladder" metaphor for children's participation has proved useful in helping people think about children's developing capacity to participate so I will borrow from it again here (see page 25) (Hart, 1992).

1. Manipulation

The classic example of manipulation is when one sees children in a parade where they have been given signs to carry but they have had nothing to do with writing the signs and they do not even know why they are in the parade or what the signs say . They may be used for example in a demonstration to prevent a new highway from being built, arguing that it is dangerous to children when the real reason is to maintain local real estate values.It is common in playground design for adults to ask children to do drawings of what they would like in their playground. The designers take these away, select what they wish and do not feed back the results to the children. They come up with a finished design and pretend that the children designed it.

2. Decoration

An example of decoration is where you have a conference and the children are dressed up in relation to theme, but again do not really understand what the theme is: another missed opportunity for children.

3. Tokenism

It is very common at conferences for children to be given a voice, perhaps on a panel, but nobody really takes seriously what they say. The children are given little opportunity to prepare for their role and may be dressed up to look cute. People will certainly clap, photographs will be taken, there may even be some tears, but nobody will really take much notice of what the children say.Each of these examples from the lower rungs of the ladder can have a negative effect on children's democratisation, because the children soon come to see their involvement as a sham.

4. Assigned but informed

This rung of the ladder just achieves what I would call valid participation. This is a very common way that children's advocacy organisations get children to play a role in broadcasting an awareness of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. I have seen thousands of children in the Philippines, Brazil and elsewhere demonstrating for the rights of children and understand that that is what they are doing, even though the whole thing might have been designed by adults. Another example is the hundreds of working children who were organised to bang on doors in the poorer areas of Bombay in order to remind mothers to get their children immunised. This use of children as "social mobilisers", especially for health initiatives, is tricky because it can easily become a cheap way for adults to achieve some social agenda without much thinking about its impact on the acting children themselves. If done well however it can be a valuable first step in getting children to understand their right to have a voice. Although their own voice is not used, it can help them to see that children can play a valuable social role. To be successful in this way, however, it needs to be followed up with opportunities from higher rungs of the ladder.

(Taken from Children's Participation: from Tokenism to Citizenship, by Roger Hart, published by UNICEF, 1992)

5. Consulted and informed

There are many ways for children to be authentically consulted in the design of play environments (Iltus & Hart, 1995) Children should not just be interviewed or asked to make drawings, leaving the designer to disappear and magically produce a play environment which claims to have been designed "with" children. At a minimum, the design process must be made transparent, revealing how children's ideas were used. When there is feedback and the children are involved in negotiation over the design, it can then be claimed to be participatory design.

6. Adult designed: shared decisions with children

This is what we should be doing almost all of the time in our projects. Adults may initiate a project but should set up a frame for collaborative decision-making. We have found that it is particularly effective to use three-dimensional models because it maximises involvement with all ages of participants and increases the degree of negotiation well beyond that possible with drawing (Iltus & Hart, 1995).

7. Child-initiated and directed

Children's "free play" is child-initiated and directed. When the stage is set and there is a rich play environment, free play offers an opportunity for children to collaborate with one another and to design their own activities with a flow of play that works for them. A few years ago a member of our research group studied the play of emotionally disturbed and intellectually disabled children (Schwartzman, 1988) He found that the teachers of these children, even when they were really trying, invariably interrupted the children's play just when they were about to complete an episode. It is very hard to be a playworker and intervene in children's play without interrupting the flow of that play. The reason I respect the playwork profession so much is the way it tries to often set the scene for child-directed play, responding to children rather than directing them.

8. Child-initiated: shared decisions with adults

The International Journal of Children's Rights reviewed my essay on children's participation and criticised this part of it. The reviewer asks how could I possibly have "shared decisions with adults" at the top of the ladder. My answer is that I do not want children as a separate society. We are trying to prepare children to be participating members of society. There is a naÔve wing to the children's rights movement that talks about children's power, and the child's world as separate. This is nonsense. The movement should be about children's rights to have a voice with adults. So often in newspapers one sees pictures of children carrying out some project in the community with a headline like "New Park Built By Children" and the adults pretend that they had nothing to do with it. It is, of course, often patently obvious that it was an adult-controlled project, thereby making a mockery out of the idea of children' participation. We need to make adults, including journalists, more honest about the different and important roles of both adults and children.

All too often, the most crucial phase of problem identification does not involve children. One very effective way for children to identify problems which they can act on is through acting out scenes from everyday life. I have seen Filipino street and working children use skits with one another as a way of articulating problems in their lives in meetings at the local level and then taking these to regional congresses of street and working children, and finally at the national meeting, to agree upon extremely important issues to present to the Philippine National Congress.Enabling children to take the lead in transforming the physical environment is a particularly effective way of introducing them to the idea of their taking more initiatives in their lives; for example creating murals on a community building as a way of making it their own is a very simple but concrete, and hence powerful, way to give children more control over their lives. Yet, in the dozens of programs I have seen with street children around the world I only remember one where children had been allowed to take control over a facility in this way, even though "streetworkers" are next to playworkers in their recognition of children's capacities.

In the Bronx where we have worked for the last five years we have some neighbourhoods so dangerous that play has disappeared. This is true of many urban areas in the USA. Many playgrounds are used as drug locations. In many parts of New York, it has to do with the movements of drug dealers and crime. In the West Farms neighbourhood where we have been working for many years the situation became so bad that there were no spaces left for play at all. Only teenage boys, who rigged up milk crates on traffic lights to serve a basketball hoops, had any play space at all. In this area we are helping some fine people take back spaces for their children. We engage with the community to both plan and design these playgrounds. It has become easier to convince the city government of New York to support this approach, not because of a deep ideological shift in their belief in public participation, but because they have concluded that community participation is necessary to create workable community open spaces. In the planning phase templates of many kinds are moved about on large neighbourhood maps by parents, teenagers and children in community meetings. These templates express dangers, valued places, possible safe locations and so on. This flexible medium enables a rich discourse between all age groups (Iltus & Hart, 1995).

In the design phase, models are built, again by all age groups, and these are shared at the community meetings or on the street or at the site itself in order to maximise the involvement of all age groups in the community. Through debate between the different age groups we gradually arrive at a consensus.Community gardens are valuable as safe places to build areas for children because adult males are there all day long. The best way to design for children within these community gardens is in model form, in the garden. Children enjoy designing inside the space itself, using natural elements from the space.

In some parts of the world, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is being used as a very effective tool to increase children's involvement in society. In the new democracy of South America for example there are some impressive examples. One of the biggest programs is El Programa Muchacho Trabajador (The Program of Street and Working Children). This is a national movement involving 55,000 children. These children meet in "Alternative Spaces" because the school system is too formal to carry out the program and because many children do not go to school. There they design mini-projects which they then carry out and evaluate. It is a very effective action research program.

Unlike most "environmental" programs with children this is not limited to the same set of "ecological" problems defined by the environmental movement. Children are concerned with many other aspects of their environment and this program empowers them to identify and act upon problems which concern them. For example, I visited children living in San Vicente, a very poor area outside Quito. Because many of the children had to walk an hour and a half to get to their recreation centre, they designed a bridge that would shorten the journey. They then worked with adult members of the community to build the bridge.In calling for the increased participation of children in community projects be ready for those who will argue that children are losing their childhoods and that we need to protect this by guaranteeing the right to a play world separate from adults and the adult world of planning and decision-making.

I am sympathetic to this perspective but I do not see the protection of childhood as antithetical to an improved recognition of the developing competencies of children. I believe that it is in all of our interests to enable children to gradually increase their participation in the communities in which they live. Playwork is more important than just creating opportunities for children's individual development. It is also about enabling children to play a role as competent and responsible participants in the community and larger society. The profession needs more discussion on these big questions. What, for example, are the relative merits of adventure playgrounds versus theme parks, not only in terms of their impact on children but also for the society we are creating? How we answer such questions is, I believe, of great significance for democracy and community in the twenty-first century.


Benjamin, J. (1976). Grounds for Play. London: Bedford Square Press. The National Council for Social Service.

Children's Environments. (1992). Special Issue on "Children's Changing Access to Public Places". New York: Children's Environments Research Group, City University of New York. Vol. 9, No. 2.

Hart, R. (forthcoming). The Children's Community Participation Handbook: Methods for Involving Citizens Aged Four to Fourteen in Sustainable Development of the Environment. New York: UNICEF.

Hart, R. (1983). Wildlands for Children: A consideration of the values of natural environments in landscape planning. London: Town and Country Planning Association, Bulletin of Environmental Education. No. 14, Feb. 1983.

Hart, R. (1976). Place and play: Transforming Environments. Milton Keynes: BBC/Open University. Film and programme notes of the same title.

Hart, R. (1987). Children's Participation in Planning and Design: Theory, Research and Practice. In C. Weinstein & T. David (Eds.), Spaces for Children. New York: Plenum.

Hart, R. (1992). Children's Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship. Florence: UNICEF/ International Child Development Centre.

Iltus, S. and Hart, R. (1995). Participatory Planning and Design of Recreational Spaces With Children. Architecture & Behaviour, 10:4. pp 361-370.

Katz, C., Hart, R. & Iltus, S. (1990). The Participatory Design of Two Elementary Schoolyards in Harlem, PS 185 and PS 208. New York: Children's Environments Research Group.

Hart, R., Iltus, S. & Mora, R. (1991) Safe Play for West Farms: Play and Recreation Proposals for the West Farms Area of the Bronx Based Upon the Residents' Perceptions and Preferences. New York: Children's Environments Research Group.

Schwartzman, J. (1988). A comparison of teacher-child play interactions in mentally retarded and non-disabled groups. New York: Children's Environments Research Group Monograph.

Contact Roger Hart:

c/o Children's Environments Research Group Graduate School and University Center City University of New York 33 West 42nd Street New York, NY 10036 USA

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