Places for People - Assessing user needs - Children's play needs in housing areas

© Anne R. Beer, 1997

Facilities to support play


Researchers have also investigated the activities that children are involved in when playing outside.

In the last decade there appears to habe been a dearth of research into play in the home environs.

Research in the 1970s and 1980s investigated mainly middle-density estates. Despite its age this data still provides very useful information for site planners and designers, by showing the sorts of things children like doing outside and the relative importance of each activity.


These case studies showed that on average the child's time outside could be divided into the following major activities:

On the move:

running and walking around; this took up about 40 per cent of their time outside


sitting or standing still took up about 20 per cent of their time outside

Playing with wheeled toys/cycles:

playing with wheeled toys and cycles took up about 15 per cent of their time outside

Ball games and use of equipment:

kicking a ball around took up about 6 per cent and playing on equipment only about 3 per cent of their time outside.


This information is important to planners and designers, as it indicates that not all a child's time outdoors is spent in boisterous play.

Much of the time children need somewhere to play quietly, preferably in a sheltered corner near the home. Indeed, benches, seats and low walls can do much to ensure that the space outside the home is a sociable meeting place for children and adults.


Elsewhere it is emphasised that play is part of the learning process, but that we should also allow for the recreational aspects. Into this recreation category of play falls the provision of the conventional play equipment such as swings, roundabouts, and slides. Providing such facilities gives children a pleasant sensation but teaches them nothing.

A child gets more satisfaction from 'finding things out', so such equipment can only keep the child amused for a relatively short period of time. This factor might be one of the reasons that equipment is vandalised so often.


However, the presence of play equipment also has an important secondary function. It creates a social meeting place, a place where both children and accompanying adults can go.

As such it gives a focus for an outing and provides a place where it is considered legitimate to dawdle and where it is possible for newcomers to an area to begin to make friends. When the equipped play area is shared by several housing areas, it gives the users the chance to make friends with people from outside their immediate neighbourhood.


This function of play areas as a meeting place is particularly important for adults as well as children in newly built residential areas It gives the new inhabitants a chance to meet and get to know people who live nearby.

For parents with pre-school children this chance to meet people is vital if they are to feel settled and safe in their new home (see section dealing with the importance of friendship networks as socially stabilising factors in housing areas).


Every estate should have places for running, rolling, climbing, swinging and hiding, either within it or adjacent to it. Spaces need to be designed and furnished (walls, fences, benches, steps, as well as different types of vegetation, can all be used by designers to give a certain spatial quality).

Producing environmental settings, which support a wide range of naturally occurring childhood activities, is important if the child is not to feel inhibited by the environment from developing a full range of play activities.


It will be obvious that spaces within and around housing areas which support play activities do not need to be official play areas. Instead they can be incidents in the total environment. Attention to detail is important in developing the full potential of a housing area as a support environment for children. For example, imaginative surface treatments with changes of material, texture and level add to the diversity of the ‘micro’ environment and, therefore, add interest for the small child in particular.


The presence of sand and water are particularly attractive to children, although adults often dislike their children getting dirty and bringing sand into the house. However, if there is no sand, children will play in the earth or puddles, or even in the gutters unless prevented. Most children are attracted by wetness and by the possibility of making dams or mudpies. Almost all children like making a mess.

But how is this to be catered for in our densely built urban environments? It is a situation of inevitable conflict, whether sand is officially provided or not.



The provision of sand areas by the designer requires the daily maintenance of raking and ideally a yearly change of sand also has to be organised.

Keeping dogs and cats out of such areas can be a major problem. The designer who provides a communal sandpit has to overcome this. Cat and dog excrement can be a danger to children. Cats in particular carry a disease which can lead to loss of sight.

For these reasons it is probably best to leave the provision of sand play areas in housing schemes to parents in their own gardens.


Children require somewhere they can be boisterous and noisy, somewhere they can play football, make things, and somewhere to play indoors when it is wet or cold, without the danger of upsetting their parents.

To meet these needs some form of playground and kickabout area should be provided, if possible near the housing. Research has shown that when these are within 400m. of the home, they are well used.


Where possible a larger facility with indoor accommodation should be available within 800 m. of every house. This could provide all the formally organised play facilities a housing area needs - it could allow for organised sporting activities, as well as the use of play equipment. It would then be possible to envisage that all other play could be informal, with the layout of the estate used to provide a general support for children's play.

Some consideration could be given to the role of the primary school for the play centre level of play provision.


Ideally each school should have an adjacent but separate play centre, with joint use being made of the ball games areas. Such provision might also go some way to helping with the problem of the unsupervised child with working or single parents.

Society has frequently failed to recognise play as a social need, because it considers that families should cope on their own with a growing child. It is now generally accepted that the community is all-important in achieving social cohesion and preventing social disintegration.


Designers cannot solve a community's problems, but they can inadvertently make them worse if they fail to provide settings which support what people and their children want to do.

It is important to remember safety and to design play facilities so that informal supervision of the sites in which children are likely to play is possible - for instance, from the windows of nearby houses.

Why plan for play

Standards of play provision

What is play?

Designing for play in housing areas

Where the child plays

Facilities to support play

Solutions - local planning for play

Involving the users

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Text and illustrations (unless stated otherwise) © Anne R. Beer, Map21 Ltd, 2001, all rights reserved. Terms of use: Any involved in education or training may copy the contents of these web pages with the proviso that they always make reference to the origial copyright.

© Anne Beer, 2000
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Map21 Ltd

Latest update 19 Dec 2003