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

© Anne R. Beer, 1997

Standards of play provision


During the 1970s the Department of the Environment in Britain became concerned about the number of 'social housing' estates being built without adequate provision for the child at play.

In the UK local authorities were responsible for the provision of 'social housing'. Until the early 1980s they were responsible for building considerable numbers of council houses in the form of low-rise row housing (terraces) and flats (apartments) each year. Building programmes related to local demand, but were controlled by central government regulations on annual expenditure (UK Local Authority Finance).


During the 1970s almost all the local authorities argued that their difficult financial position meant that they were unable to afford proper provision for children's play. This was despite the fact that from the 1960s onwards it was generally accepted that all social housing schemes should provide appropriately for children. The money was not made available.

From the 1970s onwards there was increasing evidence of the social problems on the new higher density housing estates - some of this could be linked to children not having the opportunity to play properly in and near the home (Holmes and Massie, 1970).


The DOE's increasing concern about conditions of life in newly built social housing areas led to the Department's sponsoring several research studies into conditions in relatively newly built housing areas.

Although these were designed to cover a wide range of issues related to the provision of housing for the poorer sections of society, some dealt more specifically with how children play in housing areas and with the facilities they require for play (Design Bulletin 27).

At the same time as issuing that research-based study, the DOE issued Circular 79/72. This advised local authorities on the space standards and items of equipment that they would need to provide in each housing area.



The Circular is still of interest today, as it aimed to develop standards of provision in relation to children's play in housing areas. It was also notable for the fact that it specified that social housing estates which did not provide play spaces and equipment for children's play, would not be approved for DOE funding.

Between 1972 and 1978 the standards specified in the DOE Circular on Children's Playspace were applied almost automatically to all housing areas designed. However, by the latter date the problems resulting from a too literal application of standards were becoming all too apparent.


The intentions of the Circular's standards of provision were excellent. Unfortunately, with the lead-in time required for the designing of large, high-density housing estates, few architects had the resources or time to redesign the layout of the estates.

The result was that problems were created on housing areas where the new standard 'play spaces' were squeezed into the already overcrowded surface area.

It was really only possible to apply the DOE standards in small, low-density schemes and in private housing areas (the latter were also covered by the Circular when more than 11 houses were built on one site).



The whole problem of the difficulties and dangers involved in translating children's play needs into planning and design standards was well documented as long ago as the early 1970s by Holmes and Massie (1970). Their study, together with the earlier studies undertaken by the National Building Research Centre, had helped pave the way for the subsequent DOE research work discussed above.


The danger of the standards of provision approach is that the application of standards can be a substitute for thinking. Unless the designer is fully aware of the other social factors which make for successful play provision, it is difficult to argue against such an approach and design becomes almost mechanical.

To provide the correct space standard for the given amount of funding available is always far simpler than working out the actual needs of the children. So in the mid 1970s play spaces were squeezed into any usable corner, with little regard for the potential for conflict between adult and child inherent in such an approach to site planning and design.



The DOE does not appear to have expected any other approach. It is notable that its staff considered, approved and funded all these new layouts.

The result was unhappy users and vast sums spent on removing badly placed play areas and facilities (e.g. play spaces against gable walls, spaces which were too large and noisy, right on the doorstep of houses).

The problem was that by concentrating on the needs of the child, a situation of child/adult conflict was always in danger of being designed into these new housing areas.


Adults are in the majority on most housing estates and they feel that they also have a right to live as they want.

This means that the designer has the unenviable task of attempting to find a solution which provides a good environmental setting for children, whilst reducing the possibilities of conflict between the child, the adult and the local authority.

This can only be done by thinking hard about the specific site and by considering how it should be laid out to allow for children as well as adults. Designing for children is part of the process from the beginning, not the after thought it became through the inflexible application of 'standards of provision'.2.10

To develop local standards for children's play in and near housing areas it is necessary to consider:

  • the distance between the dwelling and the facility
  • the number and age of children living in the area
  • the ease with which a play facility can be reached - main roads are barriers
  • the existence of other local open spaces
  • the degree of diversity which can be achieved in local play provision

the safety of the child


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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Latest update 19 Dec 2003