play areas

Photo by Nathan Jones

Last year I took my two daughters, ages 5 and 6, to Disneyland. After greeting and taking photos with the countless characters that we came across, getting on all kinds of rides, trains and carousels, and enjoying the various shows, my daughter, looking visibly worn-out, asked, “Hey, mom…isn’t there a regular park here where kids can just play?”

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Just play. That’s all my daughter wanted, as she had stopped enjoying the overwhelming stimuli all around her. Luckily, a few feet away we found a huge sandbox where some “dinosaur bones” were hidden, and several children were focused on unearthing them. Gradually, the little paleontologists got to know each other, and they ended up working together to build “the tallest sand dune in the world.” This task required a lot of work and a fairly sophisticated level of organization and coordination among the children.

A few weeks later, back at the IDB, I listened as officials from a child development program in the region discussed what they had learned about best practices for the design and construction of play areas for children. I smiled to myself as I remembered my adventure.

While listening to the conversation, I made my own list, a “mom list,” with the key elements that every children’s play area should have. I tried imagining what features a space dedicated to “just play,” as my daughter put it, should have. Here is my list:

  1. Flexible spaces where children can use their imagination, that lend themselves to role playing, with materials that, with a little creativity, can be used as all kinds of props for play (logs that double as chairs, stones that turn into spaceships, or sticks that become dinosaur bones, for example).
  2. Large, well-lit, airy spaces, where children can marvel at and explore elements of nature (plants, rocks, sticks, water, dirt, and sand, to name a few).
  3. Safe spaces where children can take risks without danger, learn to trust themselves and others, and ask for help.
  4. Inviting spaces that encourage interaction and group play but that also offer a child a place where he can feel comfortable if he needs to play alone for a while.

Building a play area with these features does not seem as though it would be an overly expensive or complex task. It should be within reach for all municipalities, elementary schools, and preschools. There is bound to be more than one city thinking of a way to build more and better play areas and to transform spaces that do not make the grade. Toronto, for example, transformed an abandoned lakeside parking lot into a public beach.

What are your favorite play areas? How can your community get organized to improve the play areas available to its children?

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