I’ve thinking a lot about affordances recently. An affordance is something in the environment that makes an offer to a person, or that reveals a possible function. Here is an example: a flat hard surface about 20 – 40 cm off the ground affords sitting.
Affordances are often specific to particular groups. A 40 cm high flat surface does not afford sitting if you are three years old – though it may afford climbing on. That same flat surface – if hard and smooth enough, and if above another flat, smooth, hard surface – does afford grinding – to a skateboarder.
Affordances are also often sensitive to small physical changes. Install an anti-skating grommet, and the grinding affordance vanishes (though not the sitting affordance).
The idea of affordances is especially helpful for anyone interested in play space design. Why? Here is an anecdote – and an image – that helps to explain. When my daughter was about 6 or 7, we were out on a family walk and came across this stile.
Look carefully at this picture. Do you see anything unusual about the stile? In functional terms, it is redundant. You can simply walk round it and carry on your way. Which is precisely what all the grown-ups did. But not my daughter. She climbed the stile. How does this relate to affordances? In simple terms, she was alive to the climbing affordance offered by the stile.
I use this anecdote when I present to designers and landscape architects, to help them shake off the idea that play equals fixed play equipment. What is more, I cannot help but see this story as evidence of children’s innate playfulness. They are constantly, actively seeking out novel, stimulating ways to engage with whatever is around them.
While I do use the idea of affordances when talking to design professionals, I am curious to know how useful it is with wider audiences. Does it expand people’s way of thinking about playful places? Or is it too abstract and philosophical to be easily understood? This is where you come in.
If you are familiar with the concept of affordances, how much do you use it – and how useful is it? If this is the first time you have come across it, did you find it confusing, or revealing? Were you left scratching your head, or did light-bulbs go off inside it? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Footnote: the concept of affordances is closely associated with the pioneering American psychologist J J Gibson – in particular, his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (which made a deep impression on me as an undergraduate). Rather wonderfully, I have since found out that the idea can be traced further back, to observations of children’s playful engagement with the world around them. A few years ago I took part in a lecture tour with Prof Harry Heft, who has written on affordances and children’s play [pdf link]. He explained that the concept is linked to the work of another psychologist, Roger Barker – one of the founders of environmental psychology – and his book One Boy’s Day, written back in 1951. This includes detailed descriptions of the rich, varied ways that a seven-year-old boy plays in, on and with the features of the physical environment in which he lives, in the course of a single day. I hardly need add that such a day would be beyond the imagination of most seven-year-olds in America (or the UK) today. Barker’s study – and Harry Heft’s work – were in turn the basis for some innovative research into children’s independent mobility and the child-friendliness of neighbourhoods, carried out by the Finnish academic Marketta Kyttä (who joined Harry and me on that lecture tour; they were terrific company, and thanks to Facebook, we are still in touch). I reckon I will return to Marketta’s work here at some point.