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

© Anne R. Beer, 1997

The following is a broad overview of the issues that need to be addressed in planning and designing for children's play in new and regenerated housing areas

For a wider view of children's and young people's needs in the city see:
No particular Place to go, Ken Worpole


Why plan for play


All those concerned with planning and designing the built environment have to question how best to provide spaces and facilities for children. In housing areas in particular, they are the main users of the outdoor spaces.

The subject of children's play has attracted much attention in the past hundred years. As a result, there is a wealth of literature on the topic. This has been produced in the main by sociologists and psychologists. Despite this, it is only relatively recently that this field of study has produced specific findings of relevance to planners and designers.


In recent decades those involved in planning and designing 'social housing' have begun to rethink traditional approaches to designing for children on housing estates.

This has been partly as a result of the increasing evidence that there is a link between the impoverished environment of many estates and the rising levels of vandalism and crime (see work of Alice Coleman).

Changes in our approach to children's play needs have also resulted from our increasing understanding that the way a child plays when young can influence behaviour in later life and perhaps throughout life.


Research by psychologists has repeatedly shown that the child who does not play properly in pre-school years is at a considerable developmental and social disadvantage by five years old, and may never be able to overcome this.

Clare Cooper Marcus has drawn on the literature from the psychologists and sociologists to develop a child sensitive approach to designing housing environments that support children's day to day needs. She stresses that providing an adequate and preferably fully supportive provision for play at the local level is part of society's responsibility towards its children.



If play is essential to the healthy development of the child, then society needs to ensure that the child can play safely and is not hindered by hostile environmental settings. Planning for play is, therefore, not just about providing playgrounds, although those are likely to be part of any solution in urban areas; it is about recognising that play happens wherever there are children and that we must create environmental settings which support their needs. At low densities there is often the space for children to develop their play without undue conflict with adults. However, in urban areas at higher densities - where is the child to play? (see Colin Ward)



It is of the utmost importance for those involved in the site planning and design of housing to find acceptable solutions to the problem of planning for play. To do this, the environmental planner and landscape designer must study the research information on children's play needs.

It is important, however, to realise that solutions to the problems related to play are only partly to do with the built environment - the real problems are social and economic. As site planners, all we can do is ensure our solutions do not add to the problems and ideally, try to stop them forming in the first place.


In the recent past, the town planning process has developed and applied 'standards of planning and design' to arrive at solutions to deal with the issues related to children's play. In Britain, there was official government guidance in the 1970s and 1980s (DOE).

It can now be seen that this type of guidance has resulted in inflexible planning approaches. The results of unthinking application of the standards were, almost without exception, disasters. Such 'play guidance' failed to recognise the individuality of each group of users and the sites within which they operated.


To design successfully for children, designers need to go back to the basic requirements and play patterns of the child.

You need to be aware of the social and cultural, as well as physical environmental factors which are likely to inhibit a proper development of satisfactory play experiences for the child.

You need to consider the causes of conflict and tension in the housing environment and the extent to which these can be influenced by design solutions.

Providing for play should be seen for what it is - a major design problem.


The planners and designers of new housing areas have a major disadvantage over those working on existing urban developments, in that the end user is unknown in many cases.

To overcome this, the planners and designers need to recognise that they must work with 'best guesses'.

For instance, the type of social group, if not the exact user, for which the housing is being designed has probably been identified at the design stage.

Knowing this allows the planners and designers to make certain predictions about the needs of users, based on previous research studies.


A warning to designers: too often in the past designers have taken the easy way out and produced a design that just 'looks good'. Such an approach may win professional design awards, but if it does not address the real problem of providing a support system for the child at play, then it fails as a design.

Some of the major themes which have been investigated by various research projects are set out here. Where possible it interprets the findings of these sociological and psychological studies as guidelines for the designer.


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



Designing for play in housing areas



Note: For reasons of individual privacy of young people a decision was taken to use old images in this online presentation. Therefore, all the images showing people at a recognisable level of detail were taken before 1996 and by far the majority of them date from before 1980 some even from the 1970s. They were taken in many different european countries.

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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