A Brief Analysis of the Play Value of twelve play environments in Hackney, May 2009
Play Value: The range and quality of play opportunities offered by a play environment
As defined in Appendix 1 in Aileen Shackell, Nicola Butler, Phil Doyle and David Ball (2008) Design for Play. PlayEngland:London
By far the most important feedback I can give following this assessment of the play value of twelve play sites in Hackney is their lack of any visible coherent strategy for development. Arguably the most important question to ask prior to equipping any kind of play space is “What is it that we are trying to change?” or to put that another way, “What will the children have with the sites we develop, that they won’t have if these sites are not developed?”
My point is this - apart from the odd space that will have a drop-in quality, most of the spaces assessed for play value are local estate bound sites that provide for a specific community. “What is it that that community or the children in it need from the perspective of both play value and play experiences?”
Without this analysis, any environmental development risks – or is condemned to being – a hotchpotch of fashionable clichés – boulders, wooden equipment, tree trunks and so on. The problem is, is this what the children need? Certainly in some of the more overpowering and overcrowded living environments, a secluded, quite, secure space in which to immerse themselves in their own reverie and imaginative pursuits will benefit local children immensely. A space where there is sand, water, where digging is allowed, where there are plants and so on will provide a highly stimulating back drop for children’s interactions and fantasies.
Other children, having been cooped up in a small flat will need space to run and challenges to meet. Large swings may satisfy some of this drive, and platforms and balancing bars may also, but play does not sit easy with the contrived. Trees to climb, a tree house even, and other off-ground challenges where children must assess risk and apply the skills of balance and coordination to excel in a game of tag for example, will address their needs more than a monotonous swing.
Planting could include fruit trees and bushes that are not only there to climb, but also bear fruit that the children can eat.
But all of this is dependent upon the conclusions of an analysis of need. What is missing in the child’s play environment and how are we going to satisfy that deficit?
Significant variation in play value from site to site
Although I have not scored play value as such - this is not meaningful – different sites’ inherent play value, i.e. the range and quality of the play experiences they offered, varied enormously. For example, sites like Lea View House, Butterfield Park offered high quality, diverse experiences, not simply because of what they contained but because of what a whole range of children could make of them. I also liked the addition of wooden sculptures at Clapton Square, although they were understated and too small.
Most of the others, although inoffensive enough and frequently pretty and pleasant places to be, offered little in terms of excitement or imagination, save of course Cranston Estate, which although confusing as a play space, will ensure that young adolescent males in particular will be able to engage in exploits they can be proud of.
However, all too often there seemed to be an intent to pre-empt how children played and what they played at, rather than provide an interesting or exciting abstract backdrop to the children’s own fantasies and imaginings and leave the rest to them. Several sites had large swings, others had different versions of balancing beams, and others had platforms implying that children everywhere needed the same or similar experiences. This may have been a correct response but it is unlikely.
Jackman Street did not offer much excitement and could have been improved with more assertive landscaping and more prolific planting. At Nye Bevan there was little to hide in or on and as a consequence children playing there would be constantly overlooked and scrutinised. Children need a degree of privacy when they play.
I’m sorry to say it but at Sandford Court everything was wrong. It felt like a grudging afterthought. There were a few stones in a circle, (these were stones not the boulders that populated many of the other sites), a few unattractive tree trunks, a blue seat (completely out of context), all of which surrounding a small tree. Unlike several of the other play spaces I visited this space had no playful atmosphere or ambiance. It was also unhelpfully close to housing. Rather than try to second guess Sandford Court’s designers, I would invite them to ask what it was they were attempting to create there, and then ask if they had been successful?
Play experiences on offer were biased towards/limited to locomotor play
There are at least 16 different known types of play: Communication, Creative, Deep, Dramatic, Exploratory, Fantasy, Imaginative, Locomotor, Mastery, Object, Recapitulative, Role, Rough and Tumble, Social, Socio-dramatic and Symbolic although not all of them can be conducive to unstaffed, fixed provision like these twelve play sites. However, one would anticipate that even fixed equipment sites would facilitate the manifestation of most of them.
However, the majority of the experiences on offer grow out of only one of these, namely locomotor play – in the form of climbing, balancing, swinging and sliding. Of course we should not underestimate the importance of this component. Locomotor play is not only important to 3D movement, it is vital to environmental navigation and one of its major outcomes, calibration is also essential to later procreative skills. The point is not that locomotor play is unimportant but it is only one out of many kinds of play experience that are essential to happy, healthy and balanced children.
Yes, some sites will facilitate a lesser degree of social, communication and object play than some other, and the more comprehensive sites may also facilitate some dramatic, fantasy, deep and mastery play too. However, there is considerable disparity both in the range and depth of playtypes that are possible at different sites.
We should be reminded that for many children, particularly the young, these sites may represent the only play opportunities these children have access too. Meaning that there is a considerable onus on sites to provide a comprehensive and balanced access to as wide a range of play experiences as possible, experiences that will facilitate brain and muscle growth, cortical map development, flexibility – an essential to adaptation in a fast changing world - and mental stability and sanity.
Lack of originality and creativity
It was not my intention to be flippant when I used the term cliché to describe the current fashion for boulders and wooden equipment. It is just that I am aware that certain organisations have ‘discovered’ these natural features, have communicated them to others and now there is a tendency for play sites not to look identical with the ubiquitous swing, slide and roundabout, but with boulders, streams and bridges instead.
When good ideas like these are produced perhaps it might help – from the point of view of diversity as well as that of originality - to ask, what else could we do that has a similar impact but is not falling into a stereotype.
The lack of originality to which I refer certainly does not apply to every site that I visited. Frampton Estate has a sand crane, Trowbridge has two original wooden structures, Nye Bevan has two original wooden structures, Clapton Square has wooden structures and sculptures, Lea View House has several innovative qualities, Butterfield Park has its water pump, and Cranston Estate has its Pagoda and climbing walls, so there are real signs of original thinking. Where these manifestations fall down, is in their connectedness to one another. Few of these sites have a ‘play theme’ that would enable children to move from one item to the next as an integral part of, for example a game of off-ground tag. In other words, although they do have intrinsic value as individual items, they have little collective value as items that would facilitate the ‘flow’ of the locomotor and imaginative games that children would anticipate using these sites for.
I would define ‘Connectedness’ as “The capability and capacity of a play environment to enable different kinds of play to connect with one another and thus to facilitate a flow of activity throughout the whole site”. In other words part of the play value of any site is measured by the extent to which it facilitates games and other child-initiated activity.
Limited opportunities for risk and challenge
The importance of engaging in challenging and risky experiences when they play is increasingly being recognised as an essential component of any children’s play environment. Apart from having access to nearby trees to climb, and being able to jump from the wall surrounding De Beauvoir, there was little evidence of a planned attempt to design risk into these environments.
Designs do not generally incorporate what play is – flow, off-ground, diversity, interest or magic
I have mentioned these omissions above. Designing a space for children should incorporate recognising how children use spaces. Little children’s focus on the world is very spaces specific and local, it will not apply to the totality of the available space. However, for children from perhaps three years old upwards, play is a more head-up experience and they look to see how they can join what is available together to increase the complexity of their experience. Older children take this further by using the space in three dimensions.
On the face of it, several, perhaps most of the sites I visited would have been satisfactory for the play experiences of the under threes. However, for children whose expectations (and developmental needs) are for environments that offer opportunities for flow and connectedness they were mostly left wanting.
As far as interest and diversity are concerned a lead can be taken from Lea View House, which acts to attract children into it, to explore its possibilities. Apart from the inherent magic of the natural environment, none of the sites visited, except perhaps Cranston Estate, left me wondering “I wonder what’s going on there?” Like the rest of us, mystery and the unknown attract children. However there was little of that quality on most of the sites – what they offered was obvious to see and any drive to explore would have been made redundant as a consequence. Several sites would have benefited from the implementation of variations of the concepts contained in Talbot and Frost’s, Magical Playscapes.
Apparent confusion between the play needs of the young and the non-play needs of adolescents
This is really a reference to the Cranston Estate site. My first issue is that of scale. Several of the sites with wooden balancing beams and platforms felt out of scale with the children they were intended for, but it was here on the Cranston Estate, that the notion of scale was overwhelming. In particular the ‘Pagoda’ style shelter is huge and dominates the space. It may in fact provide unintentional opportunities for the risk, challenge and deep play that I suggested might be absent!
My concern however is that because of its scale, it will dwarf smaller children and will be dominated instead by young men who desire to ‘show-off’ their prowess to one another and to young women. This is not intended as a criticism of either the young people or of the design of the site. However, it might be more successful as a play environment rather than a display opportunity for adolescents if there were even more connection between different items than are there already. I acknowledge that Cranston represents an experiment, and it will be interesting to see whether it is a success for children of say 12 and under or whether it becomes the exclusive domain of older boys.
Let children do the imagining
Buxton Gardens is a nice little site and like several others, has the potential to offer children good and comprehensive play experiences. However, the flaw is the boat and the aeroplane. To provide these kinds of pieces of equipment in 2009 is inappropriate simply because they take away the imaginative initiative from the playing child.
When they play children continually use their imagination to create a world from the space they are in. There is no point in providing a space for play if children’s imagination is channelled in such a way or if their investigation of the world is pre-empted by the designer. Children use abstract props to create manifestations of reality in their world. A cardboard box becomes a car, a swing becomes a plane, and a tree becomes a ship. To provide children with identifiable shapes is I think, to circumvent their gift for imagination. A play space should facilitate that gift, rather than supplant it with an adulterated version.
This ‘problem’ could have been overcome by the addition of more abstract, less identifiable shapes that children’s imagination could continually transform and integrate into any game.
There are good aspects to most of the sites I visited, although one in particular is below par. Thought should be given to how flow and connectedness can be improved by having a more joined up concept than the current fragmented one. Thought should also be given to the point of the exercise from the point of view of the children these sites are aimed at and their play. Does what is provided address their needs, and if you think it does, explain how it does?
The overall quality of sites is a cause for some concern. At their best, they are very good, at their worst they are very inappropriate. The bulk that occupy the middle ground are not as impressive as they could be because they rely on repetition rather than on local needs and local manifestations of them.
One way of overcoming this is to avoid such an emphasis on obvious locomotor outlets, as important as they might be, and instead concentrate on what makes a space interesting, useful, exciting and awesome to those who are going to use it. Locomotor could mean a structure, or a fruit tree. The difference being that a fruit tree is both climbable, but also produced blossom and fruit.
Another way of avoiding an obvious locomotor emphasis is to arrange equipment so that children can use one piece to get to another and another…… thus creating opportunities both for tag games and for imaginative narrative.
Sites do not have to be dominated by equipment either. A water focus, a small garden, allotment, copse or orchard occupying only a few square metres will provide children with infinitely more experiences containing play value, than will individual pieces of manufactured equipment. Plus, as trees and bushes mature they present further opportunities for deep play and for imaginative, social and fantasy experiences.
Most (although not all) of the play environments visited do not contain an element of magic or the unknown. Although when children range, these are the very qualities they will be attracted to. Although Clapton Square has sculptures they will not be significant in terms of the archetypes that impress children. And although there are standing stones and wooden piles at Lea View House they do not conjure up a zone of mystery in their current format.
Simlarly it is important to avoid doing play’s job for it, whether using ships and aeroplanes or Walt Disney murals. Play’s proven developmental benefits will not be available to children unless they go through the processes of imagining, risk assessment and so on. Providing equipment that short cuts that process will not do the users any favours.
Finally, although I could analyse each space visited, I suspect that this would not be as helpful as giving some general pointers for Phase 2.
My best advice is prior to even entering into design mode, to try to experience your ideas from the perspective of the users, particularly children between 4 – 6 years of age, where their heads are up and they are attempting to compute environments as a whole from the perspective of their play possibilities? Is the playground a connected space? Could children play off-ground games there? Are there infinite opportunities for different kinds of play, or does the very environment being created restrict activity and variation?
If boulders or trees are being planned, ask how their configuration can resonate with children archetypally or recapitulatively? A grove of trees or a pyramid of stones contain more meaning for children that is often acknowledged by many adults.
I hope that what may seem a critical report will be viewed in the light in which it is intended. Most of the sites are well above the bottom line of a decade or even five years ago, but they still bear many of the traces of those times.
Hopefully with Phase Two you will try to emphasise a move away from them, into more child/play literate manifestation of what environments for children could be.