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At InspiredPlay, we believe children and young people should be able to play freely within their communities. It’s important to know that providing play opportunities is as much about creating general public space that offers play opportunities, as it is about designing and developing designated play spaces.

What is ‘playable’ space?

Playable space is simply a way of describing ‘shared’ public space, which meets the needs of different people at the same time. Support for playable spaces can greatly extend the range of play opportunities offered to children and can be highly cost effective. A positive attitude towards play is a key feature of good public spaces and helps create a more child-friendly place to live.

In order to label somewhere a ‘playable’ space, a legitimate use of it must be children’s active play. Yes, it’s obvious that playability is a feature of fixed equipment play areas – but it is also a feature of some parks, recreation grounds, natural areas and other types of public open space.

Playability is not just a matter of a place’s physical characteristics. It can also be influenced by social and cultural aspects; for example, a space that is dominated by older people who do not welcome kids is not playable, regardless of its physical characteristics.

What characterises playable space?

Good playable spaces need to make children and young people feel welcome. Most public open spaces and parks have enormous potential for play and children should be encouraged and supported to do so. For example, the use of ‘No ball games’ or ‘Keep off the grass’ signs should be always be questioned and ultimately avoided unless there are strong safety reasons for their use. Structures designed with anti-skate features might also be reconsidered. Supporting playable space can be as much about attitudes as features.

Good playable space can include informal play features. In conventional play areas, the installation of play equipment acts as a signpost to children that they are welcome to play there. Playable space may need a ‘signal’ – but it doesn’t need to be equipment. Boulders, logs, planting or special surfacing can highlight that children are welcome to play there. Such spaces can be adopted by children and improved by items they bring along themselves.

Good playable space should be monitored for unexpected dangers. Children get so many benefits from being outdoors and creating their own play spaces without adult intervention. However, once it is clear that local children are using a place, site owners should keep an eye on the situation. Children will often improvise, using their own judgement to decide what feels safe, and in this case the site supervisor should always do a risk assessment as well as consider the benefits.

Good playable space is shared space, which respects the needs of everyone who uses it. Public space is generally shared space and the different groups of people who use it likely have different needs for the way it’s designed. It is possible to meet these different needs but with careful design that considers all of the potential uses.

Where can we create playable space?

In towns and cities
The most important locations for playable space are where children would most naturally want to play – on their local street or the local green area, as examples. In parks and green spaces, trees, bushes and water may give children the chance to invent their own play. Urban areas such as streets, town centres, public squares and fountains may also provide play opportunities. Water has always been part of the urban streetscape, and has a magnetic attraction for children.

Residential complexes
Many residential complexes are laid out with networks of verges and greens, but because the land is close to housing, it requires careful handling if children are to play there. With consideration however, these spaces have huge potential for providing play opportunities close to home.

Street play
Lots of children use their local street for play, especially when parents feel content that they or their friends can keep an eye on what they’re up to. Small corners that might not be noticed by adults can have massive appeal for young ones. Opportunities for street play can be enhanced by reducing traffic volumes and speeds, and local streets can be planned, designed or adapted so that children and their families feel more confident about playing out. Streets that are well designed for play are usually also better for pedestrians, cyclists and the whole community. The provision of ‘pocket parks’ and play spaces are a great way of promoting streets as social places.

What does this look like in practice?

In the casual open green space you see above, we were able to encourage tree climbing and rope swinging by installing our specialty safety surfacing. Having this in place both welcomes play and ensures safety leaving both parents and keiki feeling confident to use the space for its intended play opportunity. This is a perfect example of a ‘playable’ space.