Making the case for more playful and child-friendly places

It is obvious that children’s play experiences and everyday freedoms are hugely shaped by the places where they live. So anyone who cares about these issues should also be concerned about the qualities of neighbourhoods, towns and cities, and about how they are planned, designed and built.

Child playing on pavement in residential area of Delft

Human habitats are changing fast. In particular, cities are growing and changing faster than ever before – and more and more children are growing up in cities. How should play advocates, and advocates for more child-friendly places, respond to these changes? This post tries to answer that question.

The post brings together some key strands of my thinking over the years on child-friendliness, outcomes and advocacy. It is a very lightly edited version of my response to a discussion on play and the environment that was initiated by the International Play Association (IPA), of which I am a member. You can find the IPA discussion paper here.

The challenge

IPA is right to address the issue of how children’s opportunities for play are influenced by the environment in which they live. As the IPA paper recognises, urbanization is perhaps the most important environmental factor shaping children’s play experiences. Urbanization is in turn driven and shaped by rapid globalization.

In the face of this shift, government planning processes are often ineffective and/or weak. This failure, combined with a lack of effective citizen engagement, is leading to the spread of unplanned, speculative development that is not child-friendly, not sustainable and counter to the public good. Children’s voices and perspectives on urban environments are all but absent.  Moreover, the challenges facing those who wish to influence urban policy are growing.

The IPA discussion paper gives a useful overview of the relationship between children’s right to play and the environment. It rightly sets out the links between good play opportunities and wider health and developmental outcomes. Another strength is the broadness of its scope, in terms of recognising the widely differing contexts and circumstances that limit children’s right to play in different parts of the world.

However, the paper has significant gaps as a position statement. Taking it forward, IPA’s position should be strengthened in three ways to make a stronger case and build an effective platform for action:

  • by framing children’s play in the context of child-friendliness;
  • through an increased focus on outcomes, with the aim of strengthening the policy case;
  • through recognising the lack of influence of the play advocacy sector and hence the need to build alliances with other progressive urban policy advocates whose agendas overlap.


There is a large body of research, policy and practice on the topic of child-friendliness, much of it informed by children’s rights perspectives. This work could do with revisiting and reframing.

Greater recognition is needed of the role of walking, cycling and children’s independent mobility, both as a means to improve their access to play opportunities and as forms of play experience in their own right. Walkability in particular is critical to children’s experience of place as they grow up. Play advocates need to help expand policy-makers’ understanding of this crucial planning concept so that children’s perspectives and experiences of walking are properly taken into account.

For this reason, IPA should reframe its work on children’s play and the environment through the adoption of a fresh conception of child-friendliness which brings together questions of places/provision/experiences and access/mobility.

The Finnish academic Marketta Kyttä has developed a conceptual framework for child-friendliness that provides a sound, helpful basis for play advocacy. It is based on Gibson’s work on affordances and on the role of children’s everyday freedoms – their independent mobility – in actualising affordances. It characterises child-friendliness in terms of – on the one hand – the experiences on offer in a neighbourhood and – on the other – children’s ability to access those experiences. The framework is a valuable starting point for exploring the characteristics of child-friendly environments that are most relevant to play.

Diagram from Marketta Kyttä's 2004 paper

Marketta Kyttä’s typology of child-friendly environments

Diagram of my simplified version of Kyttä's typology

My simplified version of Kyttä’s typology

One implication of this framework is that it shows the connections between child-friendliness and sustainability. Put simply, a child-friendly city shares many of the qualities of a sustainable city: it is compact, easy to walk/cycle around, and has a good supply of accessible, welcoming green space.


UNICEF CFC frameworkHistorically the child-friendly cities (CFC) movement has focussed largely on process measures, with little focus on outcomes. For example, UNICEF’s 2004 publication Building Child Friendly Cities: A Framework for Action sets out nine elements or building blocks, all of which are strongly process-oriented, emphasising children’s engagement and participation.

Work to promote children’s participation is not unimportant. But on its own, it is not enough. Advocacy based solely on principles of rights or participation has so far failed to provide the leverage that is needed to influence those whose decisions shape the lives of the many millions of children who are growing up in cities. A stronger and broader policy case needs to be made for why decision-makers should have any interest in child-friendliness.

Greater emphasis is needed on making the policy case – and building the evidence base – for CFCs, especially in terms of health, developmental and economic benefits. For example, much research has been carried out within the fields of public health and urban planning on the environmental determinants of health, including research on the benefits of compact urban design, walkable/cycleable neighbourhoods, affordable, efficient public transport, and accessible green space.

Some of this research has addressed children and young people. Yet it has not been brought together or presented in a form that would make it useful for advocates of child-friendliness.

A stronger emphasis is also needed on outcome measures (as opposed to process measures) within the CFC framework and its associated accreditation and implementation tools. These could include levels of children’s independent mobility, or measures of children’s time spent in outdoor play.

Finally, case studies of persuasive child-friendly planning and policy interventions should be identified and shared, making clear not only the qualities that make them child-friendly but also their relevance to public policy agendas.

Young people using a public space in Rotterdam

Public space in Rotterdam

Two candidate case studies are Rotterdam (which has invested substantial public funding into physical changes to make some neighbourhoods more child-friendly) and Bogotá (where twice-mayor Enrique Peñalosa has placed a strong emphasis on the principle that children are an ‘indicator species’ for cities, one example of which is its citywide ‘ciclovia’ network of regularly closed roads that open up public space for families to enjoy).

Links with progressive urban agendas

The above insight about the overlap between child-friendiness and sustainability is an illustration of my final line of argument: that play advocates should explore and develop shared agendas with others who are trying to influence urban policy. IPA and play advocacy organisations need to raise their profile and credibility on urban planning, transport and public space agendas.

This is most likely to be achieved through engagement and dialogue with agencies that are active and influential in these policy areas, rather than through being a lone voice and developing stand-alone positions. While grounded in clear, explicit values and principles, these shared agendas should aim to move beyond the articulation of policy positions and into the territory of strategy and tactics.

For example, those campaigning for liveability and sustainability in cities support many initiatives – the promotion of walking and cycling, for instance, and improvements in public space – that would also make cities more child-friendly. Through building on these shared agendas, play advocates and advocates for liveability and sustainability are more likely to have a positive influence than if they remain separate.

As globalisation – and the neoliberal planning processes and practices that it gives rise to – gain momentum, those who seek to steer urban development in a progressive direction will face ever greater challenges. This strengthens the rationale for broad progressive alliances.


I offer three recommendations, which distil the key actions from the above discussion. These recommendations focus on the role of IPA and play advocacy groups, as these are likely to make up the audience that IPA’s programme of work is most likely to be in a position to influence.

  1. Adopt and adapt the CFC framework

The UNICEF CFC framework should be reviewed to focus on play, leisure and independent mobility and on outcomes and impact (not just process).

  1. Build the policy case

IPA should gather and disseminate the evidence base in support of more child-friendly cities, including compelling and well-documented case studies.

  1. Develop shared agendas

IPA should build links and develop shared agendas with NGOs that promote progressive approaches to urban planning, transport and public space, and should encourage play advocacy groups to do the same.

18 responses to “Making the case for more playful and child-friendly places

  1. Really useful Tim – thankyou

    There is play and there is purposeful play. To be more specific, there are spontaneous play, team play, competitive play, self-competitive and noncompetitive play. There are also: alongside play and opponent based play requiring defeating rivals. Participants within the autistic spectrum and others physically or cognitively challenged and various special populations need to participate in individual or independent play without offense and defense and best without teams. Here we call attention to the play understood as “individualized” play which in essence scores as purposeful play about which this comment concerns.

    Purposeful play is intended to achieve certain specifically designated intentions. For example, mainstreaming and integrating the disabled in sports and recreation. Another example: developing motor skills, physical coordination and self-confidence. Another purpose might be for the socialization of community residents who meet and interact at playgrounds and play courts provided by the community in parks and recreation centers. Even spontaneous unstructured play is purposeful seeing that the play, by socializing and the bonding with others, has purpose of course. That much is self evident once considered.

    But when a community plans the distribution of space and budget, purposeful play, especially addressing the children in need of noncompetitive recreation, and the requirements of the differently able, should – but does not – take priority. The other more conventional forms of play exclude far more than include. They were never purposefully intended for integration and socialization of special needs populations whose recreational needs are invariably and decidedly neglected. That neglect is reflected in the large number of body banging, fast paced sports fields of play benefiting from the allocation of space, budgets and attention and the virtual nonexistence of self competitive sports such as bowling, golf and Bankshot sports. We advocate for Bankshot as most cost-effective.

    Ball playing exclusionary sports whereat play means defeating others are many but there are so very few self- competitive sports such as Bankshot, developed intentionally for the purpose of play without opponents. Inclusive facilities should provide sports played by participants alongside not against others and thereby succeed in large measure at achieving total mix of a community. Total mix diversity constitutes a most worthy purpose for play.

    In the Wall Street Journal [Saturday, April 4, 2015] the weekend interview was with Jean Vanier, the Canadian theologian and philosopher who founded the Ark, this year’s Templeton prize winner, talking about his life’s work of building communities for the disabled in a world “seeking perfect babies.” He says, “people with disabilities want to relate.” It makes “people who are closed up in the head become human.” He goes on to point out that “the great thing about people with intellectual disabilities is that they’re not people who discuss philosophy. What they want is fun and laughter, to do things together and fool around, and laughter is at the heart of community.” “It is to understand what it means to be human in all its imperfect forms, and to mark human dignity where it is least physically obvious.”
    Dr. Reeve Brenner
    The National Association for Recreational Equality

  3. Those points are well made, Tim.
    Without committing myself to any particular conceptual framework at this stage, you are absolutely right to say that such a framework needs to be articulated and agreed. This is necessary foundational work.

    Equally important is, as you say, the need to collaborate and build shared agendas across interests. These interests – walking, cycling, sustainability, disability, urban design and planning etc – naturally overlap and intermesh with the need to create child-friendly environments, in particular in public and communal realms. The IPA paper you refer to recognised this intermeshing, though did not, so far as I can see, carry the rationale through sufficiently in its paper. Thus, from that IPA paper:

    ‘… article 31 as a whole contributes to the social, cultural and economic well-being of society as a whole (IPA, 2013). The rights in the Convention are indivisible and interdependent. The right to play, expressed within article 31, is central to the promotion of resilience and to realisation of other rights including rights to life, survival and development, participation, health and education. Equally, other rights must be respected in order to guarantee the realisation of article 31.’

    It is the ‘indivisibility and interdependent’ nature of rights that underpin the conceptual and pragmatic rationale for working collaboratively with, and sharing the agendas of, other interests.

    Finally, although I know it is implicit in everything you say, the needs, wants and rights of teenagers need explicit mention, and explicit attention. There is the tendency to, pretty well exclusively, to speak primarily about ‘children’ when discussing play. We may know what we mean, but there is a need to be consistently explicit in talking about children and teenagers – underscore ‘and’. (I dislike the term ‘young people’. Always leaves me thinking that they are indeed people, but not quite.)

    The fact is that teenagers, certainly when we are thinking about the street, the park, the residential estate, are shadowed by intolerances, and not a little suspicion and fear. And that’s without mentioning the prejudices and discriminations that black and ethnic minority teenagers are victim of.

  4. Thanks for the post, Tim, thoughtful stuff as always. I appreciate the thinking on outcomes, particularly in terms of policy. As you know, I am also keen on other lines to be pursued alongside (not instead of) such an approach to advocacy, including the UNCRC General Comment 17’s recommendation of a policy/legal focus on sufficiency. I understand the pragmatic reasons for the outcomes focus and I also think it has weaknesses (and even perhaps ‘risks’), including the assumption of universal cause-effect, adult-input/child-outcome chains and, more pertinently, its power to occlude other ways of understanding children’s everyday lives. This is not an either/or, it’s an and/and. For example, one of the things I really like about Marketta Kyttä’s work is her Fields of Action, and particularly my understanding of the notion of a Field of Free Action is that it cannot be planned in any deterministic manner by adults (as this would make it a Field of Promoted Action). Although it can be planned FOR in a much more open, emergent and vague manner. This dovetails with my current thinking on the concept of ‘independent’ mobility. I’m keen to start a campaign to change the language of this, as it is, in my understanding of the term, adult-centric (who or what are children ‘independent of/from?) and occludes relational ideas of space. I’d suggest that rarely is any mobility ‘independent’ – adults and children alike usually move through spaces with or towards others, and are rarely not in contact with someone else, if only via forms of technology (and absent others also have a presence). An intimate knowledge of a neighbourhood allows children and adults alike to know spaces to avoid, spaces where there could be help, etc etc. The idea of mobility as independent can mean people conceptualise individual children as isolated from these relational aspects which renders them passive victims that need solutions to be provided by expert adults (although of course I acknowledge the power that adults have in spatial design and practices). So, in terms of CFC ‘indicators’ or frameworks, I’d be keen for this relational register to be more explicitly acknowledged.

    Buzzing in my ears through all of this is a quote from Colin Ward: ‘I don’t want a childhood city. I want a city where children live in the same world as I do’ – with all the contestations that that may bring too. Which is the other point I wanted to make – it is tempting to think that all play is good and all play leads to socially desirable outcomes. The play sector ties itself in knots with this one, as the accepted definition of play means adults should not impose, prescribe or proscribe particular forms of play, and yet this is precisely what we do all the time. It also assumes there is a clear demarcation between play and whatever ‘not-play’ might be, whereas I’m keen to pursue lines of enquiry that acknowledge play as interwoven in all aspects of daily life. My idea of a CFC is one where adults and children ‘rub along’ in a Jane Jacobs kind of way, not always harmoniously.

  5. Thanks Wendy and Bernard for these thought-provoking, engaging and generous responses. I’ll try to do justice to them in my own – and will focus on yours Wendy which I think raises more questions.
    My post outlined an advocacy position, for IPA and other play advocates to consider. By definition this takes it beyond conceptual exploration and into the realm of action. If play advocates want to get around the table with decision-makers, we need to have some idea of what we are asking for. Yes we want them to be asking the right questions, but we also want to be able to give them some good answers (or at least have some idea about those answers).
    Overall, I do not find anything in your position Wendy that is in great tension with my proposals for action. While I agree more can be said about what is meant by independent mobility (and for that matter play) I think there is enough clarity and consensus for some policy proposals.
    I agree too that questions about the universal goodness or otherwise of play experiences are important and tend to be ignored by play advocates. But I do not think this is a fundamental barrier to advocacy.
    As for outcomes, I hear that you accept the need to engage (and welcome this) but I also hear the resistance. Your comments add to my wish/plan to write something more substantive on this. For now, I will just say that I reject the characterisation of a concern for outcomes/impact as pragmatic (with its suggestion of compromising or playing the game). I think it is entirely proper to be concerned about how children’s experiences may shape their life chances and paths. Indeed I would question any adult who said they had no interest whatsoever in this.
    There is no fundamental tension between a concern for children in the here and now and a concern for their future lives. I agree that the way outcomes are understood to arise is often oversimplistic. I also think they way they are framed – which outcomes, how chosen, who by and to what ends – is deeply problematic. But to go from this to labelling the whole topic as suspect is a baby-and-bathwater move. As a parent, I see no contradiction between wanting my child to be happy – here, now – and wanting my child to have a healthy and rewarding life as she grows up and throughout her life. And yes, there are lots of value questions waiting to be answered here, as well as definitional ones. As I said, a topic for further debate, I hope (and I know it is a topic that Bernard and others in the play world have strong views on).
    Finally, I am happy to second your endorsement Wendy of Colin Ward and Jane Jacobs, being someone for whom The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Child in the City are repeated sources of inspiration and insight.

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  7. Just found you with some googling :-) been foolishly reading Jane Jacobs and recently watched two fascinating videos, about children playing cycling games, and teaching very young children to go shopping.

    Jacobs states street pavements should be 35 ft wide, to enable children’s play and that controlled play in parks and playgrounds is ill thought through, replete with mythical concepts, when children are best civilised on busy mixed streets with loads of shops, businesses, cafe’s and adults around to keep an eye on things .

    I am puzzled as I do not remember anyone discussing deliberately enabling neighbourhood for children, and stopping this zoning of play.

  8. Jacobs also discusses the intricate ballet of the streets, so I’m not sure if the following about dancing bicycles is great minds thinking alike or fools failing to differ :-)

  9. Clive – thanks for your two comments (one of which got held up in WordPress’s spam filter). I agree that designers and policy makers should make more of the links between fun, play and physical activity.

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  12. It is so important to ensure that playing environments are safe for children!

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