If a play area is the answer, what is the question?

Amager ark play space outside CopenhagenI have been working with the National Trust since 2009 to engage more children and families in their unique properties, coast and countryside, through playful offers and activities. I am now pleased to be able to share one product of this work, a ‘think piece’ on play spaces written in 2010. It is entitled – somewhat provocatively – If a Play Area is the Answer, What is the Question? [pdf link].

The paper aimed to raise people’s ideas about what rich, playful offers to children and families might look and feel like. It was written as an internal document for managers of National Trust properties and sites. But it has much wider relevance. I hope that it will be of interest to those managing visitor attractions, heritage sites, museums, country parks, nature areas, regional and national parks; to designers and landscape architects; and even to forward-thinking local authorities, housing associations, parish councils and community groups.

A couple of quotes give a flavour of the content:

Creating fine play space is an art, and takes creativity and imagination. One very useful creative starting point is to think about how the spirit or essence of a site or property – what leading Danish landscape architect Helle Nebelong calls the ‘genius loci’ – might be captured or highlighted, and to bring this out in playful ways.

Thoughtfully chosen loose materials – a box of silk scarves in front of a mirror; buckets and brushes in a stable with some model livestock animals and a water supply; gardening tools and raised beds in a formal garden – turn a passive space into an invitation to explore, engage and imagine.

Fountains, City Hall, LondonI’d welcome responses and further thoughts.

Published with the kind permission of the National Trust, which retains copyright. If quoted or referenced, please acknowledge authorship and copyright as appropriate.

7 responses to “If a play area is the answer, what is the question?

  1. I love that question! It makes you think about the “why” in a whole new way. Thanks for sharing.

  2. That is an impressive article. It really gave me a lot to think about that I had not considered before. Thank you for sharing!

  3. The question could be, certainly from a child’s perspective, How long is a piece of string?

  4. A well-designed play area is a marvellous thing but I can’t help feeling sad that the impression parents/carers get (especially in this country) is that play can only be allowed in certain specified areas and children should be restrained everywhere else. I think children need to learn that different types of play are possible everywhere – it doesn’t have to be noisy or boisterous if the space is used by others – parents need more ideas for creative, flexible entertainment and to encourage their children to explore the possibilities of a space, which they will do instinctively at an early age, and children need to learn how not to get bored no matter where they are but without spoiling things for others.
    Sad eg: At Aug bank holiday I sat on the front in Paignton near parents who did not want their children to go on the sand (you’ll get all sandy) or in the sea (you’ll get all wet). No wonder they were screaming (be quiet).
    So the question is “Where’s the fun here?” and the answer is “Everwhere!”

  5. I whole heartedly agree with the need to encourage better contact with nature. My garden still has tree ropes, dens and equipment leftover from my own childrens usage 15 years back. So why don’t the current visiting children use these artefacts? Comments about being careful or not getting dirty from their parents? Possibly. I wonder if we are missing a trick by not realising how we need to educate parents? I’ve yet to see in UK the Scandinavian idea about creating adult play spaces. Get the adults to get wet, dirty, delight in dewdrops and spiders webs and then we might have a hope.

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