Planning for Play

Wednesday March 15, 2023

Children are experts in their own lived experiences, which are different to those of adults. They can provide us with unique insights into how environments work for them, which we might otherwise be unaware of. When environments work for children, they work for other community members too. We really should pay more attention to them in the planning process. This blog explores what can be found when we really pay attention.

Planning for Play

Provision of designated spaces for play has often been informed by public open space assessments, which categorise and quantify different types of space. However, traditionally these assessments have paid little attention to children’s actual use of space and many of the spaces children use for play fall outside of the remit of these assessments. This includes, the scrappy bits of land children value, their tendency to use the edges of space rather than large open areas and their use of streets, car parks and other civic spaces.

Therefore, it is important to conduct further complimentary research to establish children’s actual access to and use of space beyond formally recognised public open spaces. Researching play engages with children on their terms and reveals the rich situated knowledge they have about the places where they live. This information can then be used to both inform and evaluate designs and other interventions. Here we share some of our favourite and most insightful quotes from children and the conclusions they led us to, with a particular focus on the design and layout of built environments.

“We play different things in different places”

Children value having access to a variety of spaces in which they can have different types of play experiences. The range of places children can access for their play also appears to have a significant influence on their overall satisfaction with their opportunities for play. Those children who report lower levels of satisfaction are likely to have access to fewer places and therefore less varied experiences of playing. The range of places children can access is likely to depend on what’s available in their local environment and how far they are allowed to roam.

“if you had a little space, everyone would be crammed together and there wouldn’t be much room for play”

In our research the communities where children report the highest levels of satisfaction in terms of other people’s attitudes towards their play are those where children also report having access to many different spaces for playing. Where there are more spaces to play, children are able to negotiate who they share space with and this helps to reduce tensions between different aged children and with other community residents. This issue of contested space is also a challenge for schools, very often there are more problems on the playground when the school field is out of bounds because more people are expected to play in a smaller space.

“you want more places for teenagers, cause then they wouldn’t wreck your fun because they’d have their own place”

Younger children often tell us about being intimidated by teenagers and adults are much more likely to raise concerns about the behaviour of older children than younger ones. However, younger children and parents also identify that improved provision for teenagers would help to free up more space for younger children. Teenagers themselves consistently report a lack of welcoming public spaces, where they can meet up, hang out and mess around without fear of reprisal. They also consistently ask for cheaper public transport to support their independent mobility. This is especially important given that they often live further away from friends when in high school compared to primary school.

“Everyone expects us to play in the park”

Whilst important to children and parents, it is clear that designated spaces alone are not sufficient to meet all children’s play needs. The emphasis adults often place on designated fixed equipment play areas when providing for play is out of balance with children’s actual experiences of playing. We need to support adults to recognise the value of other types of spaces for play and identify ways of increasing children’s access to opportunities for play in the wider public realm.

“If there could be patches of randomness”

This might be the best quote ever by anyone concerned with play and illustrates two vital points. The first is that children are very good at making do if they have something to make do with. Secondly, whilst children consistently say that they want to be able to access a greater range and variety of spaces for play, in our experiences what they are asking for is both reasonable and relatively inexpensive. As Lester and Russell (2014) said “a key message in terms of planning is the importance of pockets of indeterminate space that may have some landscaping but are not overly-prescribed”. Individually each space may offer a handful of affordances, rather than the comprehensive range children may need, but collectively these multiple spaces can present a varied and interesting landscape for play and exploration.

“we can still play there even though it’s not in good condition, we can still go around it, it won’t collapse or anything”

This particular quote is from a focus group with children who reported high satisfaction with their opportunities for play despite their local fixed equipment play area looking like something out of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. When it comes to their play experiences, quality for children is concerned with what they can do in a space, more than what the space looks like. The opposite is often true for adults. In our experience children and their parents often report very different levels of satisfaction with opportunities for play, with children consistently being much more positive. This may be in part because of the emphasis adults often place on the appearance of designated fixed equipment play areas (despite often not spending that much time in these types of spaces when they were children themselves).

“like round my street me and all my friends play hide and seek, if we don’t know what to play, we just make up our own games”

Another quote that provides many insights. Firstly, it highlights the importance of children having easy access to friends to play with, the number one thing they say supports their play. Secondly, it illustrates that where environments are conducive to children meeting up and hanging out together, they will provide for themselves by making up games.

Children consistently identify their local residential streets as important places for play, primarily because they provide space for play in close proximity to homes. Rarely though is their use of streets for play given equitable status to the needs of other road users or recognised in any formal assessment of spaces for play.

“Cause there’s very little cars. There’s lots of them but there’s like little gaps so you can like miss the cars”

The amount and speed of traffic on our roads is perhaps the most constraining factor in terms of children’s ability to access time, space and permission for play within the public realm. However, in our research we have come across communities where the layout of roads, footpaths and public spaces is such that children are able to navigate their way around whilst avoiding the need to cross major roads. As a consequence, they are afforded more permission to play out and play out much more often.

Play Sufficiency

“Boring spaces, you can’t roll down flat fields”

It’s true you can’t. Informal, flat grassed spaces are important for children learning to ride bikes and playing kickabout games. Equally, other types of landscaping are advantageous for other forms of play. High play value is present in spaces where children can manipulate the environment to extend their own play; spaces they can adapt to suit their own play needs and desires. As a consequence, places with a high degree of ‘naturalness’ tend to be places good for playing, with high play value.

Children have also told us how they don’t tend to play in the middle of big, flat open spaces because they don’t like the feeling of being exposed and prefer to play at the periphery of these sites, nearer to homes. This suggests design interventions need to be more in tune with children’s use of space, for example introducing features around the edges of sites and developing ‘defensible’ spaces within the landscape of larger sites – spaces that engender both a sense of security and a perception of privacy, where children feel secure but can avoid being supervised directly if they choose.

“In the streets there’s a lot of things that are just plain, like add stuff into them so like we can play”

If, like many children we’ve met, the distance you’re allowed from home without an adult is confined to one or two neighbouring streets this becomes the environment in which you have a significant proportion of your childhood play experiences. Here then, as children often identify, is an opportunity to incorporate simple and low-cost environmental modifications to open up possibilities for playing and encourage more moments of playfulness to emerge.

“Streetlights let us play a little longer”

In our research in the UK, children consistently report less time for playing out in winter because it gets dark much earlier and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that children often identify street lighting as one of the things that would improve their opportunities for play throughout the year. As one girl pointed out to us, not that many people want to wear a fluorescent safety jacket to the park, but you do have to go home if it gets so dark that you can’t see where you’re going or who you’re playing with. The proximity of spaces for play also becomes even more important during winter because children’s roaming distances tend to be reduced.

“‘Please play at our lovely park of joy’, put signs like this up instead”

It is likely that the use of signage that restricts play, like “no ball games” signs, has contributed to the generalised negative attitudes towards play that children and adults often identify. We need to consider whether these restrictions are justified and if there might be more positive approaches to managing concerns associated with children’s play. For example, large flat spaces inevitably attract ball-based games while slopes, mounds, rocks, trees and benches would make this less attractive and encourage other forms of play.

Children have also suggested that it might be nice if they and their playful behaviour was welcomed rather than discouraged. Direct signage would definitely help in this regard but equally useful would be design interventions that encourage children to use space playfully, for example hanging a rope swing in a tree or using alternately coloured paving slabs on a path.

“there’s nowhere really to go, where I live. So, it’s like, there is stuff to do but not a lot, like nobody to play with or anything”

A bit heart-breaking this one. We’ve met a significant number of children over the years who live in isolated rural locations and as a consequence have little access to their friends outside of school. Going to call for your mates just isn’t an option if your mates live beyond the distance you’re allowed to walk or ride on your own. This is often compounded by a lack of public open space (a lot of that lovely looking natural space in rural areas is privately owned) and accompanied by fast-moving traffic on rural roads. As a consequence, these children are often heavily reliant on parents to facilitate meeting up with friends. When we’ve asked what would improve their opportunities for play these children have said things like wider pavements, cat’s eyes, street lighting and ‘lollipop ladies’ – not things adults often think about when it comes to providing for play.

“Make it more adventurous and a safer community”

Permission to play out evidently (and unsurprisingly) influences how children rate overall satisfaction with their opportunities to play. It’s expected that parents and carers will have ultimate responsibility for the level of independence their children experience and so it’s important that they feel confident their community is a ‘safe enough’ place for their children to be out playing.

It is clear from our research that environmental design and permission are inter-dependant – where there is a greater number and variety of playable spaces, fewer issues are reported associated with the contested nature of space, meaning that community tensions are reduced and parental confidence increased. When the aforementioned conditions prevail, children are often afforded more freedom to explore and make use of the environmental resources available in the neighbourhood; resources they might otherwise not have been aware of. Equally, poor environmental design can result in increased restrictions being imposed on children. Limited spaces for playing reduces opportunities for exploration and potentially increases associated competition over space. This may in turn increase community tensions, resulting in a heightened fear of others.


Factors that influence the sufficiency of children’s opportunities for play include but are not limited to:

  • the ease by which children can meet up with friends and move around their local neighbourhoods
  • the confidence of parents and carers in allowing them to do so
  • people’s sense of community and perceptions of safety
  • the proximity and range of places where children can play
  • the quality and appearance of the environments children play in
  • the availability of play provision
  • the time children have for playing both in and out of school
  • the amount and speed of traffic on residential roads
  • the attitudes of adults children come into contact with.

Our research with children tells us that the range of places where they can meet up and play in close proximity to their homes will have a significant influence on how they report their satisfaction with play. It may be better to have a number of simply designed and maintained spaces for play close to where children live, rather than developing an impressive destination space for play that children can only access with parental support. Finally, residential streets remain key to children’s play and greater attention should also be paid to the function of these as places for play, which would in turn secure more space for play in close proximity to children’s homes.

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