Guest post: Why play matters in design

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Today’s guest post comes from Cath Prisk, Director of Play England. Play England is the national organisation campaigning for children’s freedom to play. Design and engineering of the spaces and places children grow up have a key role in making sure we reverse the trend that is keeping 70% of our nation’s children locked inside.

“90% of adults played out regularly in their street as children. Nowadays 29% of children aged 7–14 say they don’t play or hang out in their street at all.”

Source: Playday 2010/ ICM Research

If you think about where you live, how often do you see children and young people outside enjoying themselves? Now think about when you were young – how often were you roaming your neighbourhood and playing outside?

There are many reasons why children are less visible in our neighbourhoods, but design of the spaces and travel routes around them is a critical part.

Over half (54%) of parents only feel confident letting their children play outside if other children are playing out too, and 88% of parents state that children playing outside helps families to get to know each other in a community. But for that to happen we need neighbourhoods that genuinely welcome children, where they have places they can go and routes that they can travel.

What will it take to make us ‘Think Play’ when we are thinking about the design of the spaces we live in?

With the introduction of the Localism Bill and the National Planning Policy Framework there is an increased expectation that all members of communities will be consulted and considered in terms of planning and regeneration. As 18–20% of the population, the needs of children and young people, and their families, need to be taken into account and their voices need to be heard.

Planning for play may not seem to be a priority for developers and engineers, but all these professionals are concerned with creating successful community spaces and neighbourhoods. If spaces don’t work for families, how can you have a functional community?

But what about risk?

Through concerns about risk, there is a tendency to over-design ‘family friendly spaces’ to the point of sterility.

Here at Play England we are working with the Health and Safety Executive and the Play Safety Forum (a group of experts on all aspects of safety and children) to ensure we can offer the most up-to-date guidance. Tim Gill – a leading expert on children’s use of space and author of No Fear, Growing up in a Risk-Averse Society – is currently redrafting the definitive guidance on Managing Risk in Play Provision, which is fully endorsed by the HSE.

The guidance advocates, in short, a ‘risk-benefit’ approach. So yes, children climbing trees could conceivably fall out and hurt themselves. But think of the benefits: children who develop a love of trees, the environment and the planet; children who become stronger and more active; children who are curious and are willing to work hard to achieve a goal; children who have the confidence to overcome fears. Now you have a strong case for retaining climbable trees, and maybe developing other features where children can practice climbing skills.

For professionals who don’t work with children on a regular basis it can be challenging to look at designs for streets and neighbourhoods from the point of view of a child, young person or their parents.

This is why Play England and the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation have come together to offer CPD certified training for transport planners and other built environment professionals, focusing on how to build ‘child-friendly communities’ and encouraging everyone involved in developing spaces where children grow up to ‘Think Play’.

Play is essential for a healthy, happy childhood. Whether you are interested in developing active healthy communities, making spaces where children and young people develop a love of their environment, building places where families feel safe or simply places where communities can come together, then play is a key part of the mix.

If you want to be part of the campaign to increase children and young people’s freedom to play then join Play England as a member, let your friends and family know about the Love Outdoor Play campaign and tell your colleagues about the Child Friendly Communities training.

Together we can make sure children and young people today can have the same freedoms we did.

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