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