When you walk or you ride or you sit or you climb, that’s affordance

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).

Low wall with anti-skateboarding grommets

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.

Stile my daughter climbed overLook 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.

24 responses to “When you walk or you ride or you sit or you climb, that’s affordance

  1. I’ve not come accross the concept of affordances before, and your blog explains it well. What’s revealing to me is how it helps me to see the world through another’s eyes a bit better. As a pre-school practitioner and a street party co-ordinator it’s a great tool with which to consider the environment provided. Thanks!

  2. I didn’t know that was what it is called, I just accepted that if it might be used by children in playful or multiple ways according to whim then it’s worth having. It seems odd to me that designers would need this stuff pointing out to them but certainly there are many professionals in the parks and play arenas that seem to struggle to accept that anything might have a function beyond that which they intend. A teen shelter roof becomes a launching-off platform for teen skateboarders (the park in Marlow, Bucks), or two upright tree stakes set two feet apart (from the PLAYLINK Dalston study tour) become a doorway that, according to the rules made up by the local children, must be used by all children to enter the playspace or they cannot play there.
    I was having coffee last week with Jane Bain of the Jane’s Pond Ltd play company and she showed me lots of examples of `affordances’ that she has introduced or made use of in her work. Here’s a link to some examples – http://www.flickr.com/photos/janes_pond/6683695829/in/set-72157626332662274/

  3. Claudia Bernardini

    Thanks for the input! That really makes me see things in a different way. I think we all use the affordances that the environment provide for us, it’s just that we don’t realize it and and we are no longer as creative and resourceful as children in making the best of it! What a waste of opportunity! That might be the reason why architecture ‘for grown ups’ often appear very dull and boring. More daring architects should remind us that we don’t need see and use places just as one-purpose tools.
    Once again, we have so much to learn from children!

    • Claudia – thanks for the feedback – and I like your comment about ‘architecture for grown-ups’. I like spectacular buildings as much as the next person, but it surprises me how poorly many of them function at a human scale, or at street level.

  4. Hi Tim

    I stumbled across the concept of affordances several years ago and use it frequently in my courses because it fits in nicely with expectations around fostering creativity, children’s choice, personalisation and other matters regarded as important within Scottish education. When I first read about it, it was definitely a lightbulb moment – that “aha!” when something clicks and makes sense.

    I try and help people see the potential of any outdoor space and how it can be improved or adapted by a few subtle tweaks. For example, I’m really fond of planters with a broad edge as this increases the affordance – the edge, if broad enough, can be walked along, sat on, a dinosaur can be stomped along it, a train will use it for a track, it can be jumped off, etc.

    So in my line of work it’s essential. However, saying that, the references are much appreciated.

    Best wishes
    Juliet

    • Hi Juliet – thanks for the comment – that’s very interesting. I’m beginning to think that I’m not talking about affordances enough! The planting edge is a nice illustration of how it can be used to improve design.

  5. No, I’ve never come across the concept either – but it’s one of those concepts that make you slap your forehead and go “why didn’t I think of that?” Because I’ve been using the idea frequently in my own work without ever having thought the issue through or come up with a word for it.

    Amongst other things I do training programs for early childhood educators in using the outdoor area as an environment for music play. One of the frequent things educators say is “I wish we had more instruments” and I try to help them realise that they have hundreds of instruments already – they just don’t realise they are instruments. They see playground equipment – slides, forts, barrels, railings, fences, A frames. I see musical instruments because anything that can make a sound can be used for music.

    So that’s the concept of affordances right there. And is it a useful concept for me? Absolutely. Especially that bit about affordances being sensitive to small physical changes. Because while the examples you give of anti-skating alterations to affordances are essentially negative – the change reduces or eliminates the affordance – equally, small changes can increase or enhance the affordance. And in my work with music I’m always looking for ways to enhance the musicality of the equipment.

    What small changes might enhance the musical affordance of a piece of playground equipment? Well, while it’s possible to play an A frame with your hands it’s not very sonically rewarding, and nor is it immediately obvious that it can be played that way. But place a pair of chopsticks or a couple of pieces of dowel next to it and most children will immediately see the potential.

    It’s given me a new way to think about how I get these concepts across to people. Thank you.

  6. Tim, as is often the way, shortly after I posted my comment I realised that I had indeed come across affordance before – it had just been buried under a pile of mental rubbish. The place where I had seen it was in `Play, naturally’, Stuart Lester and Martin Maudsley’s publication for Play England, on pages 27 and 28 with figure 3.1 providing an interesting taxonomy of affordances.
    “The range of functions environmental objects can provide to an individual”, as Gibson & Fjortoft describe it, makes a lot of sense to me.
    I suppose the next question then is `how can we make it possible for adults to see the potential in affordances that an environment, whether formal play site or `natural’ countryside, may provide?’
    For most children with a measure of imagination it may be just a matter of allowing design (intentional or otherwise), time, experimentation and growing familiarity (plus the introduction of the unexpected, e.g. litter, leaves, sticks, water, stones, etc) to draw out various affordances at a given place but sadly (too often) it is the adults that took them there that don’t allow sufficient time and thought before making a judgement on the worth of a play site – often signalled by a nervous laugh as they condemn a place for not having enough equipment on it, and therefore in their mind, little play value. How do we bring those adults around to seeing the true worth of a place, as they once would’ve easily done as a child?

  7. This is a new word to me, although the concept is familiar.
    Since reading about play, creativity and lateral thinking, I’ve been trying to see, and interact with, the world from different angles.
    I think the awareness of affordances is directly in proportion to a person’s curiosity and willingness to play.
    If only this behaviour was fostered in schools, so adults could retain it, or even improve upon it, from childhood.

  8. Alex, Neil, Charlie – thanks for the comments. Alex – I love the idea of musical (and sonic) affordances, and can see how well it fits with your work. Neil and Charlie – yes, the challenge is helping the adults to ‘see’ affordances better, and to be more comfortable with allowing children to ‘actualise’ them (to use Marketta Kyttä’s terminology). Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell are fans of Marketta’s work, so I am not surprised to hear that it was discussed in the Play Naturally report.

  9. I had never come across the term affordances, but I’m certainly familiar with the concept. I can’t wait to delve into Marketta Kyttä’s work!

    I’m urged to go explore the places I’m most familiar with and rediscover them with an eye toward what affordances are available, and also their intended use.

  10. The idea of an affordance is pretty widely understood in the fields of interaction design and user-experience (UX) design.

    I don’t mention this as a “you’re *so* late to the party” kind of deal… but because, as somebody who’s just found some UX inspiration from a blog on rethinking childhood and play, I thought folks interested in childhood and play may be able to find similar inspiration by exploring those fields.

    You might find some of the resources out there a bit drab and needlessly wordy, but there’s good stuff there too!

    In the meantime, I’ll go back to thinking about playful affordances!

    • Hi Adrian – thanks very much for the comment, and the generous feedback. Years ago, a friend introduced me to Donald Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things”. It instantly grabbed my attention, and has stayed with me ever since – especially when I use taps! I am guessing this is the sort of material you are pointing to? Any other links or references you’d like to share here?

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