The Playability of Playgrounds: What Do the Children Think?

Published: Tuesday 30 July 2019

Would school playgrounds look different if we asked children to help design them?

There is a wealth of research which demonstrates the benefits of play as a vital part of children’s health and wellbeing, and in promoting skills in problem solving, creativity, concentration and communication. In fact, a lack of high-quality play experiences has been shown to negatively impact on children’s cognitive development. 

Despite data showing that children engage more actively and freely within natural environments and with loose play equipment, school play spaces are often fixed and standardised. School playgrounds are often flat and rule-bound as this is perceived to be safer for children. Artificial ground surfaces are regularly selected over natural materials for maintenance reasons, yet environmental considerations such as the heat retention of non-natural surfaces impact on playability and are often overlooked.

But what if we think about designing playgrounds based on what is better for play?

It was apparent from New York based artist Asad Raza’s installation Absorption, which comprised a space filled with almost 300 tonnes of soil, that children instinctually knew how to explore, engage and play with the natural properties of earth. The textures and malleability of the soil enabled children to run, dig, draw, build, pretend and imagine in myriad ways.

Kaldor Public Art Project 34: Asad Raza, Absorption, 2019.  The Clothing Store, Carriageworks

The provision for messy nature-based play is also evident in the numerous ‘Play Parks’ around Tokyo where children are free to build a den, climb a tree, sit around a bonfire or set up an impromptu water slide. Activities such as this are often what we think of when we reflect on our own childhood memories and yet rarely are children given these opportunities within playground spaces today.

The book No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society by Tim Gill suggested that over-standardised spaces for children may diminish essential developmental opportunities for children to take risks, be creative and test their skills through play. As we strive to create the perfect space for children’s play, we might be missing opportunities found in natural and wild spaces.

 Komazawa Harappa Play Park, Tokyo

Also in Tokyo, the Fuji Kindergarten is a beautiful example of a school which is devoid of a standard playground, and yet where play is core to the learning philosophy. Recognising the wholistic interplay of body and mind in the development of children, the ground of the central open space is consciously and naturally uneven.

As children navigate the surface, they learn to feel and adjust their feet to accommodate the unevenness. According to the Principal, Sato Kato, this in turn impacts on the development of their brains. The mounds of grass at Fuji, similar to the mounds of earth at Absorption and the Tokyo Play Parks encourage children to engage with them, climb on them and play on them. These ‘playgrounds’ are devoid of stereotypical play equipment, yet children can easily spend hours immersed in these non-defined settings.

Fuji Kindergarten, Tokyo by Tezuka Architects

Would school playgrounds look different if we asked children their perspectives of playability?

Dutch Architect Aldo van Eyck’s mid-20th century playgrounds were revered (by adults) for the aesthetics of their abstract, symmetrical and standardised equipment design. Since then, much playground equipment has been designed to follow similar regular Euclidean geometries. Sporrel, Caljouw & Withagen’s 2017 study on children’s’ preferences between standard (symmetrical) and non-standard (asymmetrical and uneven) play configurations however showed that children considered non-standard configurations more beautiful as well as better for play.

There is much discussion around how school design has traditionally conformed to a cellular classroom typology developed for an industrial age. School playgrounds are similarly designed to a stereotypical understanding of ‘school’ and ‘playground’.

However, as our understandings around the benefits and types of play evolve, perhaps we need to re-evaluate the design of school playgrounds? What would school playgrounds look like if we designed them with a deep understanding of playability? And what would they look like if we included children as part of the process to design them?

Top photo and above: Bourke Street Primary School students at the Hayball Studio engaging in redesigning their playground space

Article and photos: Fiona Young and Natalia Krysiak

Fiona Young is a PhD candidate as part of the Learning Environments Applied Research (LEaRN) Network at the University of Melbourne and Studio Director at Hayball Architects in Sydney.

Natalia Krysiak is an Associate at Hayball Architects and recipient of a 2018 Churchill Fellowship researching how neighbourhoods can be designed to encourage play and independent mobility of children.