I always had a feeling that most playgrounds aren’t working – children get bored way too quickly or they look for more creative ways to challenge themselves, while parents hover. As Play-Makers, landscape architects and designers are in a unique position to actually be responsible for creating play environments. CAPN and other organizations can offer us so much guidance, helping us reframe our understanding of play places that foster meaningful, creative play. Here are some key takeaways to create better play environments:
- Create opportunities for children to play with things and not just on things. Playgrounds are often exclusively environments focused on playing on things. While this is important for gross-motor development, it only addresses one side of the play equation. Playing with things requires children to have a sense of ownership or control, these are play elements that don’t have a set outcome (What do you do on a slide? You slide.) The key to this is the incorporation of loose parts.
- Incorporate loose parts. Sticks, stacks of boards, piles of rocks, sand, even mulch. Incorporate things that children can move around and create with. Some of the most creative play spaces provide tools, tape, chalk, building materials, and other items.
- Understand the difference between risk and hazard. Children need to encounter risk and to test and recognize their limitations – these are incredibly important developmental elements. We often mistake risks with hazards and design the risk out of our play spaces (and much of the play value).
- Allow play spaces to evolve. Children need creative ownership in a play environment. These are spaces they can change and recognize their work within. As designers and play space managers need to learn from what play elements worked, and actively introduce elements to keep the experience fresh.
- Understand capacity and operations. Everything wears out – plastic equipment and natural log climbers alike. Loose parts require a different type of maintenance than play space managers are used to. The most important part of the planning and design process is to set expectations and to help the client understand what they are getting themselves into. Then it is merely a process of planning and being prepared for what it takes to have a successful play environment.
- Limit parental involvement. Unstructured play and helicopter parenting are usually incompatible. Without parental direction, play becomes more creative, children learn to resolve many of their differences, and boredom often vanishes. While parents are in sight, play becomes structured, children constantly ask for feedback and parental intervention, and play comes in short intervals. I know as a parent, it is hard. In our play environments, we can look for ways to keep parents comfortable and able to relax, while the children get down to the work of play (perimeter fencing, comfortable seating, and shade, refreshments, activities for adults.)
The Playcosystem will open this Fall at Bernheim. https://bernheim.org/playcosystem-coming-to-bernheim-this-fall/
I can’t wait to see our daughters enjoy it! I’ll try my best to leave them be.
Now get out and Play!