With temperatures heating up and spring already underway, it’s time for children to play outside again. But are our play spaces good enough, or could they actually be too safe?
Contrary to popular belief, there is actually such a thing as an overly safe play space, says Susan Herrington, professor in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at UBC. Herrington, along with Mariana Brussoni, an injury prevention researcher at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, has studied play spaces for more than a decade. Their research has found that there’s a clear demand for more active and more engaging play spaces.
In this Q&A, Herrington talks about her findings and suggests ways of improving modern playgrounds.
Tell us about your research.
We asked almost 600 people for their opinions of typical playgrounds in their neighbourhood. We also asked them to recall their own childhood play spaces.
We found a very interesting pattern. Seven out of 10 surveyed said today’s playgrounds are too safe and lacking challenge compared to the play spaces of their childhood. Almost six out of 10 said that as children, they preferred to play in natural settings — backyards, forests or water areas – over spaces specifically constructed for play.
What makes a play space “too safe?”
It’s when the design of it doesn’t allow children to take risks. The equipment’s very low, there’s lots of rubber, or there’s very few natural elements.
This is partly because we worry that kids are always about to get hurt, and we “bubble wrap” them. But we have to teach children how to take responsible risks. Imaginative, challenging play is important to their development. It gives them confidence in the physical world and helps them develop into confident adults.
What kind of natural elements would you consider essential in a play space?
Trees, plants and ornamental grasses. Grasses are great because they change in volume over time and pique children’s curiosity. You want to prompt that kind of cyclical understanding of the world.
There is a difference between climbing a tree versus climbing a piece of play equipment. The tree is designed by nature and the child has to figure out how to navigate it, or if a branch will hold her weight.
Bamboo’s great because kids can be really rough with them. Boulders and rocks are also ideal because they’re kind of unpredictable.
Water is really essential. Fortunately we have lots of it around us in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
What does an ideal play space look like?
It’s a space where things can be manipulated and where things can change. I developed a set of guidelines that incorporates my research which I call the seven Cs. They refer to ideal characteristics such as connectivity, for example, are features and equipment connected organically to the space or are they just plopped down? Character is also important; a lot of play spaces can look like prisons.
The most important “Cs” in my opinion are challenge and change. A play space that allows change could have ornamental grasses, and one that offers challenge would have obstacles children can overcome with some imagination.
We do have fantastic play spaces in B.C. like Garden City and the Terra Nova Play Environment, both located in Richmond. Garden City was designed by Jeff Cutler of Space2Place and has different levels of challenge such as steep hills and high slides. It’s got lots of grasses, a water pump, a weir and lots of rocks. It also caters to a much wider age range.
I hope that people will pay more attention to the physical environment that they’re offering their children. Young kids are really interactive with the physical world.