Putting the play into playgrounds

Herrington says there needs to be less obsession with safety.

A child running through grass or mixing mud pies is doing a lot more learning than first meets the eye, according to UBC researcher Susan Herrington.

In fact, Herrington says that more outdoor play spaces need natural elements and parts that children can move around and interact with to enhance physical and cognitive development while stimulating imaginative play and empathy.

“Children learn by doing and it’s a really important phase of development for kids being able to manipulate their environment, which is something they’re often protected from now,” says Herrington, a professor in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Faculty of Applied Science.

Herrington has been studying children’s outdoor play spaces since the 1990s. In Canada where more than half the children up to age five are enrolled in some form of child care, Herrington says there needs to be less obsession with safety and more awareness of designing spaces that foster development.

Between 2003 and 2008, Herrington conducted a study as part of the Consortium for Health, Intervention, Learning and Development (CHILD), which comprised teams of academic researchers and community professionals from across B.C. and was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Herrington compared the outdoor designs of 16 licensed child care centres from various socio-economic locations across Vancouver.

These centres had children aged two to five, the age group that makes up the largest population of children at most child care centres in B.C. and across Canada.

Herrington discovered that children are more likely to verbally interact with each other and their early childhood educators when their play engaged living things such as plants, animals and insects.

“We found that outdoor play spaces that contain materials that children could manipulate—sand, water, mud, plants, pathways and other loose parts—offered more developmental and play opportunities than spaces without these elements.”

The study also shows that the child care centres’ play equipment was often the most expensive item in the play space but did not fully engage the children. Typical of such equipment are brightly coloured plastic picnic tables or a prefabricated module with climbing area and slide. Herrington analyzed a random sampling of video clips documenting children’s use of their play space. Her results showed that the equipment was unoccupied 87 per cent of the time.

During the 13 per cent of time when children were playing on or around the equipment, only three per cent of the time represented its intended purpose, for example, going down the slide.

“The children were either sitting beneath the equipment, or in one case, a little boy was dropping pea gravel down the hole of one of the support poles.”

But worse than boredom is overcrowding in outdoor play spaces. “We know from decades of research that when outdoor play spaces exceed their densities, there is more aggression between the children,” says Herrington.

In British Columbia, child care regulations require seven square metres of outdoor space per child enrolled full time.  This is the size of one half of a parking stall.

“It’s ironic that in Vancouver we require 14 square metres for each parking stall so when you think about it, we provide our vehicles more space than our children.”

What does work for children’s outdoor play space?

Landscape Architecture Prof. Susan Herrington has found that children enjoy environments where:

  • they had elements for children to manipulate and make their own;
  • they contained living things;
  • they were sensitive to climate;
  • they were designed to the scale of the child;
  • they allowed the child’s imagination to shape the play experience; and
  • they provided areas for children to play alone or in groups.