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

© Anne R. Beer, 1997

Where the child plays


One of the most useful attributes of children's play patterns is that there are distinct variations by age.

Understanding these helps us to be better planners and designers.

For example, research in various countries has shown that it is possible to categorise, by age group, the maximum distance that children can normally be expected to move from their homes to a play facility. In Britain this was established in the research carried out for the report Children at Plan, DOE Bulletin 27.



Children of different ages play at different distances from the home.

The following criteria can be used to help located different types of play facility:

  • 1-3 year olds play as near to the home as possible and tend to spend most of their time playing by themselves. However, under the supervision of adults, they will play in larger groups.
  • 3-6 year olds are normally found playing within 100m. of the home and are commonly in groups of 3-4 children.
  • 6-10 year olds normally play further from home, often going outside the housing area. Observations have shown that on average only 13 per cent of this age group are playing within the housing area at any one time; the rest are inside or have left the estate.


To summarise:

1-3 year olds play as near the home as possible

3-6 year olds are normally found playing within 100m.

6-10 year olds normally play further from home.


Children of all ages rarely stray too far from home. For example, the DOE surveys indicate that at any one time only 3 per cent of even the older children would be further than 800m. from the home.

It is only when they are approaching and actually are in their teens that children commonly begin to play in larger groups. Such groups can be very large, as when they are involved in ball games. It is at this stage that gangs can begin to form, and if there is nothing better for the child to do, this can lead to involvement in very anti-social behaviour patterns.


However, despite the images put out by the media, the majority of children avoid being in gangs of the type that lead to criminality. It is natural for young teenagers to move round in groups as they explore further from home and become more independent.

For most young people it is important to have somewhere to go with groups of friends and yet there is generally poor provision for this. Not all families are able to provide the space at home that this age group needs and outside there is a lack of meeting places.


As children move through their teens the common patterns of play begin to break down - individual inclinations begin to influence what teenagers do in their leisure time.

Social, economic and cultural influences become very important. Because of this, designers need to recognise that teenagers from deprived homes have a far narrower range of opportunities to develop their own individual interests.


One of the most important factors for the designer is that the area immediately adjacent to the home is the most popular play area for all ages - the doorstep.

Research into play patterns has brought out the importance of doorstep play for all children and young people. At least three quarters of all children up to 15 years old are normally to be observed near their homes, that is within 10 m. of a house door - Design Bulletin 27.


Despite the fact that surveys of user requirements in existing housing almost always bring up the suggestion that a playground is needed in the vicinity, research has shown that only a very small percentage of children use playgrounds at any one time.

However, use does vary considerably. It depends on the distance of the playground from the home, the facilities available in the playground, the type of housing and the age and sex of the child. The level of equipment is also an important factor in usage.



Children will travel about 400m. to an equipped playground, but only 200m. to an unequipped area.

In older housing areas children appear more willing to walk to a playground, whereas in new housing areas they prefer to play near the home and, therefore, are less likely to go to the local playground.

This may be to do with the greater distribution of open spaces in some of the earlier post war housing.


Such open spaces, while not official play areas, can provide a greater variety of play settings than those experienced by the child brought up in higher density, low-rise housing.

The variation in opportunities for play, which derives from the way the housing is laid out, is a factor often not recognised by parents. This can cause a demand for a playground, even when the local children are well provided with diverse informal settings for play in the small open spaces around the housing estate.


When asked what is wanted to improve the conditions of their housing areas, many parents demand the type of playground that they remember from their own youth. The planner and designer need to recognise that it is always difficult for those not directly involved in the design process to know about other equally appropriate solutions. Designers need to be alert to this.

You should work with the community to discover what is really wanted locally - play opportunities generally within the housing area, or a specific style of playground. The cost of playgrounds is so high that it can consume the whole budget for play.


In any case, there is no doubt that a large multi-purpose playground of the traditional type is an advantage to any community. But this is only as long as it is backed up by other more local play settings and facilities that are easily accessible to the child.

In particular, such large playgrounds give adults somewhere to take the child for a short outing. This allows the family to do something together without having to travel - an increasingly rare opportunity, due to the way modern cities are laid out. The cost of travel can be prohibitive for adults and children from poorer families.


Parents and children will often be willing to travel more than 800m. to use major playgrounds. For such a facility an area of at least 3,000 sq. m. is required. They are expensive to build, equip and maintain. Their size and potential to attract large numbers of people means that they should not be built within housing areas, but on nearby land.

When such play areas have been provided in the midst of housing, they have normally been so very well used, because of convenience and proximity to the home, that they become a nuisance to those living nearby - conflict results.


The designer should always be aware that any play facility that is well used becomes a severe noise source and results in child/adult conflict. Because of this, very careful consideration needs to be given to the location of all play facilities, locating those which include play equipment away from houses.


Research studies show that the majority of users of playgrounds are aged between five and nine and tend to be boys rather than girls; they also show that a maximum of only 11 per cent of children from a housing area use a playground at any one time.

The message that comes out of all the research is that children play everywhere and do not need play areas to indulge in the activity. The site planner and designer need to work out what to do about the non playground play - that requires real design skill.


The DOE survey of low-rise housing showed that almost two thirds of the children observed playing were on pavements or roads, and that almost a fifth were in gardens. Only a very small percentage (4 per cent in low-rise housing) were observed in playgrounds.

The information on where children play reflects the tendency of children to play near the home, but it also emphasises another problem, that of conflict between children and parked and moving cars.


Even when attractive play areas lie near the home, roads and pavements provide the child with another different, and often to them more interesting, environment.

Children like to play on roads, pavements and car parking areas. This is probably because it is in the street that most of the light, movement, colour and noise of an estate happens, that is everything which makes urban life interesting to the child.


On most estates it is only in the street that there is space to play football or cricket, otherwise it means the child going far from home to playing fields or kickabouts.

Within housing estates it is often only in the street that there is a good smooth surface for cycles and wheeled toys. It is very difficult to envisage any play area providing all these alternatives.

Therefore, such spaces have to be made as safe as possible for children through traffic calming measures (see Woonerf).


If a pedestrian way is to attract children as an area to play in, it must lead somewhere and so be busy; a quiet backwater with no life is of no interest to children.


The popularity of gardens does not seem to depend on size. However, the preferred garden seems to be close to main footpaths so that the general activity of the estate can be observed and to an extent participated in.

The child playing in the garden is safe from traffic, so we should encourage its use.

In addition to allowing a view of the external world, the garden should be overlooked by a kitchen or main living room window, so that it provides the sense of security which both the child and parent require.


Too many recent housing estates in Britain have been built with inadequate gardens. Gardens which lack fences or allow toddlers to crawl straight out underneath the fence, make the garden useless for young children.

It should also be recognised by designers that there is a need to provide a busy public view to interest the toddler. However, there is also the problem that this may be counter to the parents' need for privacy - another conflict for the designer to resolve!


Gardens, therefore, need to be designed to have some secluded and some open areas.


Every item in the built environment will be seen by the child as something to play with. The fact that children play everywhere on an estate means that to the child anything that can be hung on, swung on, jumped on or off, lain on, crawled under or hidden behind, will and should be used as a play feature.

Therefore, every item in the external environment needs to be built robustly.


Unless the design protects it, a gable wall will always be used for ball play. Any large area of grass will always be seen as a potential football pitch and any car parking area will be played on.


To summarise, children will always play near the home.

The designer's problem is to attract them away from the home for their noisier activities, but encourage them to play nearby in their calmer moments. Even in an ideal world with the maximum possible provision of play facilities, the designer would still be faced with a situation where children play near the home - it is the 'place where everything happens'. The designer, therefore, has to seek a solution which will allow for this but encourages noisier play to take place at a distance tolerable to adults.

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 003