Play and playful activities are an integral part of human nature. However the value of play lies in its' significant contribution to an individuals' development and the long-term benefits to society.
While at play, children develop a holistic balance of [physical, social, emotional and cognitive] skills. If this is to be maximised, children need the oppurtunity to engage in a variety of enjoyable self-directed activities. It is through these playful activities that children can test out, try and follow-through an idea - or to share and negotiate with others, to think laterally and creatively. Being able to do all these is the greatest daily motivator to learning and underpins the development of self-esteem. The benefits last them throughout life.
In order to deliver appropriate play, facilities need settings (physical environments) which will support/encourage learning-through-play. The critical criteria for settings are:
- It should invite child interaction
- It should be flexible (able to be changed by children or adults), especially through the use of loose parts
- It should be able to sustain children's interest
- It should be easy to maintain, but still sensory-rich
- It should have a range of activities appropriate to the user's skill level
Low play value is associated with excessive fixtures (permanent walls, fixed climbing equipment, static play items). This can be avoided by design solutions.
Concepts Underpinning Master Planning
The physical environment is a complex combination of the surrounds (walls, windows, trees), the play elements (play kitchen, steps, sandpits) and resources/loose parts (building blocks, paints, buckets). The art of design (which is what Play Environment Pty Ltd does) lies in making inside or outside play inviting and "ever-new".
An ad-hoc placement of play options cannot work effectively—not for the child users nor for the adults teaching/supervising. Even worse, just "squeezing in" items can result in safety hazards (from a poorly located power plug to a dangerous swing arc).
A childcare centre, a public playspace or a school—all are busy places. The art of design is to also make them happy places which offer activities to foster development growth [physical, social, emotional and cognitive].
Management decisions need to be based on long-term visibility and robust (low maintenance) features. These can be achieved through a Master Plan.
A master plan is appropriate whether it is a new development or a redevelopment of an existing facility.
Briefly, the concepts underpinning how a site can be used to greatest effect are related to:
- Space and the organization of space. Always strive for the largest possible space because high-density usage of areas heightens the risk of a breakdown in children’s play activities. Tight space also means potentially fewer play opportunities. The internal organization should reflect (a) access routes and (b) activity areas consistent with the developmental age of the users. Supervision needs clear visual and physical access.
- Exploration sensory richness. A child’s first contact with the environment is a sensory one which should be able to ignite their will to explore and play. The younger the child the more it will act as a catalyst to enquiry. Different textures to feel and touch are needed. Dappled light, colour, outlooks to the world, perfumes, leaf shapes, wall displays and configurations of play equipment extend children’s exploration and discovery. Strive to include a vantage point of 0.5-1.5m height to provide an over viewing place.
- Variety and diversity of play opportunities. Children move from one activity to another as they explore or their skill and interest levels dictate. The basic activity areas should be flexible enough to accommodate a range of activities (from reading, to water play, to construction) and to challenge them to acquire additional skills. Open-ended activities which can be made more (or even less) complicated hold the children’s interest.
Research shows that an (inside or outside) playspace which is bleak or too cramped tends to result in dysfunctional behaviours; this is disastrous for the children and stressful for the caregivers. There are design solutions for all sites, no matter how steep, how flat, how small.
Tips for the non-expert
Sites must work as a whole. This means attention to inside-outside visual and pedestrian access, as well as the location of different activities. No single person will have enough expertise to plan a whole site.
Do not expect an architect to know how to design a playroom, or a landscaper to know how to design a playground. For larger projects, use a multidisciplinary team but always include early childhood specialist expertise - otherwise there will be a mismatch between your objectives and the product delivered.
When thinking about your project's potential, try to avoid site layouts which will reduce the functional value when it is in operation. For example:
- a building placed in the centre of a site makes playground supervision and use less effective
- poor access planning cuts down effective use of space, because children "cut across" others at play in the playroom, on the verandah or in the playground
- understand what the regulations mean by "useable space" and how this translates into environmental behaviour
- a playground is more than [fixed equipment in a sandpit] in the same way that a playroom is more than [tables/chairs and a mat]
At the detailed level, there are Best Practice guidelines (see Walsh, 2006), accreditation sheets and specialist agencies (like Standards Australia).
Because children use every part of a playground, their safety needs to be considered as an integrated whole; but also considered in relation to play value and design of individual play items. Or in other words, every play item should be safe for the user, but together, the playground needs to be exciting (not boringly safe). This can be achieved if planning takes in several viewpoints/disciplines.
A poorly planned playground will be unsafe. A playground which has been developed ad hoc will usually have safety problems. For example:
- tends to result in poorly defined play spaces; so that children run across these (access problem) or may even risk injury from moving items (swing arc)
- can result in 'patchwork quilt' effects of artificial grass or other surfaces; often these surfaces do not comply with Australian safety standards, and the interfaces can present as a trip hazard
- can result in play opportunities which poorly accommodate different age groups-this is expressed in grip surfaces/dimensions inappropriate to a particular age group (too big, too small, not able to be grasped by smaller children, too high, etc.). Particular care is needed for facilities used by mixed ages since these also have an element of age-competition eg. in schools the proximity of middle childhood to younger groups, or in public parks
- in public parks (which tend to be dominated byfixed equipment) may 'add-on' shade structures without consideration of the whole site (eg. drainage problems) or of shelter design (eg. teenagers being able to climb up the structure).
If in doubt about the safety of your facility, Play Environment Consulting Pty Ltd can assess this for you. It is noted that the company also provides expert witness services in the event of litigation (see Services Litigation Assistance).
The current practices of Play Environment Consulting Pty Ltd are based on information drawn from research and 20 years of applied practice. Some of the quotes we feel encapsulate our work are:
"To be able to plan for play, something must be known about what play is." Eva Noren Bjorn
"An environment that is pleasant to be in, that can be explored and experienced with all the senses and inspires further advancements and learning." Carla Rinaldi
"Widespread misunderstanding of children's play has resulted in a growing tendency to replace vibrant, enchanting, natural and magical landscapes with overly slick, technology, inspired, manufactured structures." Talbot & Frost, 1989