Building Better Play: Five Ways London Playgrounds Are Getting It Right

After three years of work, The London Study of Playgrounds is finally complete! See the full report here. We were able to share our findings this past fall at the International Play Association conference in Calgary, as well the Child in the City conference in London, and it was recently featured by Child in the City and the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The full article is below:

"Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all." - Helen Keller

A few years ago, my family was asked to relocate to London for six months for my husband’s job. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it also meant leaving behind my full-time position to care for my one-year-old. Luckily, previous incarnations of my career involved both designing and researching playgrounds, and I decided to use those six months to study playgrounds in London, while also spending time playing in them with my daughter. And so, the London Study of Playgrounds and my non-profit Studio Ludo, whose mission is building better play through research, design and advocacy, were born.

For the first two months, my ‘research assistant’ and I visited 45 playgrounds across London, of all shapes, sizes and locations. I ultimately picked 16 to study, focusing on the ones that had unique designs, open-ended play structures, a variety of surfaces, and play ‘affordances’ (i.e. boulders, logs, and plants installed specifically for play). I then spent four months studying play behaviours in these spaces, ultimately collecting information on over 18,000 people, which included age, gender, ethnicity, physical activity levels, play movement types, and location.

Marylebone Green Playground, Regent’s Park.

Marylebone Green Playground, Regent’s Park.

After returning to the US, I partnered with the RAND Corporation and compared my findings with their National Study of Neighborhood Parks, which focused on parks and playgrounds in cities across the US. I used the data from San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, as those cities had population densities that most closely matched London. By looking at playgrounds of similar size and population density, I discovered that the London playgrounds had 55% more visitors, 14% more adults, and children and teens were 16-18% more physically active than the comparable playgrounds in the US.

Not only were the London playgrounds more popular and more active than the US ones, but there were very specific things that were attracting people. Half of the children in the London playgrounds were in just four areas: climbing structures, sand, grass, and swings. These same four areas also promoted the most physical activity. Teens loved risky elements, such as towering treehouses or high-speed spinners, while adults were located predominately in grassy areas or benches, and were most active while pushing children on swings.

One of the most interesting findings was that there were an almost equal number of children (48%) and adults (47%) in the London playgrounds. It is clear that these spaces, traditionally thought of as serving only children, are actually a rich community resource.
Most blurred the boundary between play space and park, and felt welcoming to all ages. They had plenty of places to sit, grass areas for picnics, restrooms, and nearby cafés for coffee and snacks – all great support structures for adults. The play areas themselves had massive pirate ships, huge concrete mountains with multiple slides, large swathes of sand, and wild planted edges for children to go on adventures. By contrast, the US playgrounds in the study had few options for adults to sit, little to no plants or trees, and were closed off from adjacent grass areas. The play designs were fairly homogenous, following a typical formula of post and platform structure, rubber-surfaced floor, and surrounding fence.

Tumbling Bay Playground, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Tumbling Bay Playground, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Following London’s lead, the formula for playground success is simple:

  1. DESIGN FOR ALL AGES
    Both passive and active spaces are important. Blur the lines between play and park. And don’t forget cafes and bathrooms!
  2. PLAY EVERYWHERE
    Provide ‘play affordances’, such as boulders, logs, plants and topography for inexpensive but effective fun.
  3. THINK OUTSIDE THE CATALOGUE
    All playgrounds should have the top five: grass, sand, climbing, swinging and sliding. Water and loose parts are another plus.
  4. PLAYGROUNDS ARE FOR PLAY
    Everything on a playground should be playable, including surfaces. Fun should be prioritised over safety and maintenance.
  5. RISK IS A GOOD THING
    The best playgrounds look dangerous but are completely safe, offering ways to play based on skill level, strength and bravery.

While these lessons relate specifically to playgrounds, they can be applied across the entire urban design spectrum. Focusing on the creation of spaces that work for our littlest residents actually makes whole cities more livable for all.

 

Sometimes you have to leap before you look

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My kids have a book where the main character, a bunny, is always scolded for 'hopping before he looks'. His dad says 'Look before you hop'. And he gets confused...hops before he looks...and winds up in some sort of trouble. But in real life...sometimes you just have to hop, or leap...and find out that you can soar.

Starting Studio Ludo was one of the scariest things I have ever done. In 2014, I had a secure job at a prestigious company in Philadelphia, developing research in landscape architecture, when my husband was given the offer to live in London for 6 months, bringing me and our toddler with him. It was a tough decision, a leap into the great unknown, but it seemed right to us. And it was.

While in London, I developed the London Study of Playgrounds, a study of 16 playgrounds across the city. I released the preliminary report a year ago, and will release the final report at the Child in the City conference in London this November, as well as give a tour of the sites, with researcher Tim Gill. The study found that the better designed, more innovative and natural play spaces in London were vastly more popular and more physically active than the post/platform and rubber surfaced playgrounds we see across the US.

This study laid the groundwork for all of my thinking about play. It revolutionized what I thought was possible and led me to start Studio Ludo. Our mission is to build better play through research, design and advocacy. We have found so many great partners who believe the same, and this past year has been a whirlwind.

On the design side, we have been working with our partners DIGSAU and Smith Memorial Playground on indoor playspaces for the Free Library of Philadelphia; developing the Play Parklet, a Kaboom Play Everywhere Challenge winner, with Roofmeadow and University City District; refining the competition design of Waterloo Playground towards a built project, with MTWB Foundation, Roofmeadow and ISA; and we recently had kickoffs for our Play Terrains project with the Free Library, Roofmeadow and Interpret Green; and the Playful Learning Design Manual, with Temple Infant and Child Lab and the William Penn Foundation.

On the research and advocacy side, we have attended and presented at conferences—the Playwork Campference in Los Angeles, the US Play Coalition conference in Clemson, and the International Play Association conference in Calgary. We hosted a 'State of Play' forum in partnership with Smith Memorial Playground, with guest speakers Tim Gill from London, researcher Kathy Hirsch-Pasek from Temple Infant and Child Lab and Kathryn Ott-Lovell, Philadelphia Commissioner of Parks. And we recently published our work on our smarterPLAY project in Next City. This research project is a partnership with JeffDESIGN to create better playgrounds for improved health outcomes, by studying behavior in outdoor settings with BLE sensors.

Upcoming projects include the Northwest Resiliency Park in Hoboken, NJ, and the release of our full report for the London Study of Playgrounds at the Child in the City conference, coming full circle to where it all began almost three years ago.

 

London Study of Playgrounds: Preliminary Report

We are excited to share that we have put together a preliminary report of our findings from our London Study of Playgrounds! 

 

In the spring of 2015, over a six month period, we visited 45 playgrounds within the 1km radius of the center of London, and selected 16 as part of our study. We then conducted 253 observations, took 1638 videos and categorized 14,853 visitors by age, gender, ethnicity and activity levels.

Upon returning to the US, we compared our findings to the National Study of Neighborhood Parks by the RAND Corporation, to understand the influences of the design of playgrounds on play behaviors and physical activity levels in children and teens.

We discovered that playgrounds in London had 55% more visitors and 16-18% more physical activity in children and teens than comparable playgrounds in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

The report contains a summary of our methodology, our initial findings, as well as images of the 16 play spaces. It is the first of two reports. The second will be a more in depth look at play behaviors related directly to surfaces and play structures, as well as an assessment of playground injury rates in the UK vs US, and cost differences in playground installation and maintenance in the two countries.

Happy reading!

 

We won the Kaboom Play Everywhere Challenge!

We are thrilled to announce that we are winners of the Kaboom Play Everywhere Challenge for our Play Parklet, in partnership with Roofmeadow and University City District.

We can't wait to create a playful cove of activity on an active street, reclaiming play from cars and managing stormwater. A win win for everyone!

Thanks Kaboom, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Target, Playworld, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Endowment for the Arts for the support!


Getting busy! Getting published!

It has been a whirlwind couple of months! 

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Here's a recap:

In March, we won the international design competition PlaySpace.

In April, we presented our London Study of Playgrounds at the national conferences for The Association for the Study of Play and the US Play Coalition.

In May, we submitted for the Kaboom Play Everywhere Challenge, which we are now a finalist on two projects.

In June, we submitted our National Study of Playgrounds to the National Institute of Health for funding, with our partner, the RAND Corporation.

In July, we were published in Landscape Architecture Magazine, as part of the article "Play It Up.

In August, we were published in Context, the magazine of AIA Philadelphia, for our article "Risky Business: The Dangers of Playgrounds That Are Too Safe". It was also re-published on the Community Design Collaborative's blog.

Playgrounds are getting noticed, and people are getting excited. We can't wait to see what the next couple of months brings! Stay tuned!

We won the International Design Competition, Play Space!

Yesterday, we had the honor of being selected as 1 of 3 winners for the international Play Space design competition hosted by the Community Design Collaborative and the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC).

"The power of play space in the community and its impact on early childhood development cannot be underestimated. Play Space is rooted in the concept that urban play space is an unexpected contributor to solving some of the cities most critical challenges. These spaces strengthen the fabric of neighborhoods and can improve early learning skills, imagination, independence and health outcomes for children and also provide a venue to build strong interpersonal relationships, leading to strong communities and family friendly cities."

Our team consisted of us (play design), RoofMeadow (natural systems engineering) and Space for Childhood (early childhood education). Check out our winning presentation!

What makes a great place to play? 5 lessons for a successful playground

 

Last year, our director moved with her husband and 12 month old to London for 6 months. Since play is her passion, and she needed to entertain her toddler, she used the time to research playgrounds across London.

 

When she returned to Philadelphia, she partnered with the RAND Corporation to compare her playground data with their National Study of Neighborhood Parks, focusing on San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. What she found was pretty significant. The playgrounds in London had up to 55% more people in them, and among kids and teenagers, there was a 16-18% jump in levels of physical activity. 1


What was behind this difference? Here are the top 5 lessons she learned from comparing play in London versus the US:


1. Don’t tell kids how to play


Lesson number one, kids know how to play. If you create something that tells them exactly what to do and how to do it, they will abandon it for something more exciting or start to use the equipment in more creative and possibly dangerous ways.


Slides are a perfect example. For most playgrounds, it’s up the ladder, slide down, repeat, in a repetitive loop that bores most kids once they are out of the toddler stage. But these playgrounds bring sliding to a new level:


Super tall embankment slides at Pools Playground, Victoria Park

Super tall embankment slides at Pools Playground, Victoria Park

Custom built slides and forts at Kilburn Grange Park

Custom built slides and forts at Kilburn Grange Park

2. Make it dangerous

 

Lesson number two, kids are attracted to new experiences. We learn by trying new things and seeking out thrills, and once they are mastered, leveling up to more complex tasks and environments.

 

The best playgrounds look dangerous, but are in fact completely safe, offering unlimited ways to play based on skill level, strength and bravery:

 

Log towers and net walks give the illusion of danger at Tumbling Bay Playground

Log towers and net walks give the illusion of danger at Tumbling Bay Playground

Fully enclosed net walks are safe, but transparent, providing a balance of risk and fun at Tumbling Bay Playground

Fully enclosed net walks are safe, but transparent, providing a balance of risk and fun at Tumbling Bay Playground

Topography and turrets give the illusion of danger at Spa Fields Park

Topography and turrets give the illusion of danger at Spa Fields Park

3. Let go of the rules

 

Lesson number three, the only rule should be to have fun. Everything in a playground should be playable, because kids don’t see the difference between a play structure and a puddle.

 

Plants, trees, rocks, surfacing…everything is up for grabs when kids are concerned. These playgrounds use the entire environment to their advantage, for a full sensory play experience:

 

Fallen tree climbers at Marylebone Playground, Regents Park

Fallen tree climbers at Marylebone Playground, Regents Park

Found objects and salvaged tree forts at Clapton Common

Found objects and salvaged tree forts at Clapton Common

Boulders and sand, plus a stone slab bridge define the primary play space of Wellington Barracks Playground

Boulders and sand, plus a stone slab bridge define the primary play space of Wellington Barracks Playground

4. Let them get lost

 

Lesson number four, kids love to hide. They love to build forts or dens, they like to be in small cozy places, they enjoy the sensation of being invisible, even if we really can see them.

 

These playgrounds provide places for kids to be in their own private worlds, while still staying within the boundaries of the play space:

 

The many facets of Kilburn Grange Park provide opportunities to get lost, hide and seek

The many facets of Kilburn Grange Park provide opportunities to get lost, hide and seek

Woven living willow dens at Tumbling Bay Playground

Woven living willow dens at Tumbling Bay Playground

Teepee forts at Princess Diana Memorial Playground

Teepee forts at Princess Diana Memorial Playground

5. Give grown-ups something to do

 

Lesson number five, caffeine and a bench. Almost all of the playgrounds in London have a café nearby and lots of seating with great sight lines. This means that parents can sit and chat, watch their kids, but keep a respectable distance so that play could happen without adult interference or assistance.

 

Remember lesson number one, kids already know how to play. Enjoy your coffee and take a break:

 

Cafe at the entrance to Princess Diana Memorial Playground

Cafe at the entrance to Princess Diana Memorial Playground

Variety of seating types and locations, from covered benches, to boulders, to rails for sitting and leaning, at Princess Diana Memorial Playground

Variety of seating types and locations, from covered benches, to boulders, to rails for sitting and leaning, at Princess Diana Memorial Playground

Tables and benches at Pools Playground, Victoria Park, are within sight of the playground, but not interfering with play flow

Tables and benches at Pools Playground, Victoria Park, are within sight of the playground, but not interfering with play flow

We are excited to share these findings and more at the upcoming play conferences hosted by The Association for the Study of Play and the US Play Coalition this spring!

 

1 Data for this study was collected through video observations over a two-month period from April-May of 2015, and analyzed using SOPARC (System for Observing Play and Active Recreation in Communities), developed by Dr. Thomas McKenzie of San Diego State University and Dr. Deborah Cohen of the RAND Corporation. The data was compared to the National Study of Neighborhood Parks, also developed by Dr. Cohen, focusing on San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.

 

All images copyright Studio Ludo