“These children were lucky”.

So reads an extract from Claudia Haagen’s 1995 book, ‘Bush Toys’ about the lives of aboriginal children past and present. It describes a life of splashing in the sea, racing along sand, climbing trees and slipping and sliding in mud.

These children were lucky, the author says, as they lived in their own land in the bush and had plenty to do.

Less lucky may be the growing number of children who live in dense urban centres. By 2050, 68 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas.

Here, in many cases, their quality of life is compromised. One in four children spend less than two hours per week playing outdoors. Two in three do not get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. One in four are overweight or obese. In 1970, only 16 percent of children were driven to school. Now, that number is 60 percent.

Not all of this is driven by the built environment. Increasing time being spent online rather than outdoors can be partially attributed to expanding offerings of services such as social media and Netflix. Greater reliance on private vehicles has largely been driven by growth in vehicle ownership. As the number of two-income families rises, parents may have less time to take kids to the park. Changing social norms may be contributing toward a more structured approach toward child rearing with greater emphasis on formalised activities such as trips to playgrounds or sporting facilities. Increasing expectations about safety may be driving greater apprehension about unsupervised child activities.

Nevertheless, in many cases, the built environment itself is failing to provide for children. In Melbourne, a joint study conducted by Deakin University and the City of Yarra in 2018 asked parents to submit photographs of their children’s experiences living in multi-story apartments. One image shows a lost, bored looking child crawling around in a dark space with nothing but concrete – the so-called ‘playground’ which had been provided (see image). Referencing Melbourne’s Docklands precinct, The Age several years ago ran a cartoon declaring a ‘Children Be Gone District’ – a reference to a lack of schools, childcare centres, family-friendly apartments and play spaces.

(During a recent study for Deakin University, parents of children living in apartments in the City of Yarra were asked to photograph their children’s experiences. One parent’s photograph, ‘concrete non-playground’, shows the space available for her child to play outdoors. Fiona Andrews, Elyse Warner, Belinda Robson).)

This matters. In her research paper The Power of Play: A Research Summary on Play and Living prepared for Minnesota Children’s Museum, Dr. Rachel E. White concludes that ‘play’ helps children to develop physical, social and intellectual and emotional abilities such as motor skills, cognitive skills, problem solving, creativity, risk assessment, resilience and empathy. Recreation and play can bring children of diverse backgrounds together. At any rate, they are part of the simple joys of childhood.

What can be done? Following her Churchill Fellowship award in 2018, Hayball Associate Natalia Krysiak travelled to eight countries throughout Asia, Europe, the UK, Canada to look at different approaches around the world. During a webinar hosted by the Australian Institute of Architects, Krysiak outlined several strategies for consideration.

At the outset, Krysiak says a common mistake is for children to be relegated to defined spaces such as home, school, playgrounds and sporting facilities. Often, these places become ‘destinations’ to which parents have to bribe children to go to in order to participate in supervised activity before returning home. Such spaces are also often enclosed and segregated from the remainder of the urban environment.

Rather, opportunities for play should be embedded into everyday life and should be woven into streets, transit routes and apartment complexes.

As discussed below, these opportunities fall into three areas.

(The Kings Crescent project completed in 2018 in London by muf Architecture. Play streets provide areas where children can play, socialise or relax on the side of streets.) (source: muf Architecture)

1) Playful Streets and Neighbourhoods

First, Krysiak says opportunities for play can be embedded into streets and laneways in and around where kids live.

Here, she highlights several concepts:

  • Play streets provide areas in which children can play, socialise or relax on and to the side of neighbourhood streets. The Kings Crescent project completed in 2018 in London by muf Architecture (see image above)), for example, features graphics painted onto the road, space for riding or skating, a makeshift framework for a cubby house and logs, benches and hammocks on the road’s side. For those without backyards, this brings play opportunities to their doorstep.
  • In a similar vein, ‘home zones’ (see top image above) are common in parts of Europe. These involves streets where vehicles are allowed but there is recognition that these streets belong to children and pedestrians as well as vehicles and that the street is intended not only for driving but also for walking, skating, cycling and playing. Speed limits are reduced. Signage and markings remind drivers that this street is intended for others.
  • Within green spaces and public spaces, a phenomenon which can be seen in parts of Rotterdam involves placement of converted shipping containers which house a range of different and exciting toys. Known as play boxes and manned by volunteers, these enable children to borrow toys of their choice (roller skates, a cool bike etc.) for use in the space provided.
  • Within parks themselves, some cities in Tokyo employ qualified play rangers during after school hours. Occupying sheds positioned within the park containing loose play parts and craft equipment such as rope which can be strung to trees, these workers create special play opportunities and activities for children.
  • Play parks of play yards. If children living in apartments do not have their own backyard, why not give them a communal one in their neighbourhood? Common across Japan and the UK, these involve creating secure yards in which children can play. Supervised by qualified play workers and often filled with recycled materials, these feature different play structures and opportunities for children to get wet and messy, play in mud and to interact and play with nature. These attract not only younger children but also older ones as well, and can create spaces where children of varying ages can interact. On the day Krysiak visited one such park (see image below), teenage boys were cooking lunch over a fire. Signage reminds children to look after both other children and the space itself – a phenomenon which teaches common responsibility.

Kodomo Yume Play Yard Japan_Natalia Krysiak

2. Play Along the Way

Next, there are opportunities to encourage play and learning while children are on everyday journeys as they move around their neighbourhood. Graphics on wall surfaces or on the ground can encourage them to be active or to write something. One space near a bus stop in Western Philadelphia acts as a mini pocket park and has a small space of patterns which create puzzles and games that children can solve whilst waiting for the bus.  In Munich (Germany), a scavenger hunt involves electronic devices which are scattered throughout the neighbourhood (see below). As children tap on, they receive the clues about where to head next. This encourages them not only to be active and mobile, but also to become more familiar with their local neighbourhood.

As well as fun, travel routes for children must also be safe. In Japan, neighbourhoods and local schools work together to designate safe travel routes for children. Signs remind drivers that children are likely to be walking along the route. Streets may be closed to traffic during certain times of day. On road markings such as footsteps remind kids to stop and look for vehicles.

In this Scavenger Hunt ‘Kueuz & Quer in Munich, Germany, kids tap on to various devices located throughout the neighborhood to get clues as to where to head next. (source: The Urban Activist)

3. Play Within High-Density Housing

Finally, Krysiak says play must be provided within high-density housing.

Here, she points to a five-storey housing development in First Avenue in Vancouver. The entire complex is structured around an outdoor courtyard featuring trees, grassed areas, a slide, a cubby house, seating and a huge scattering of communal toys. The courtyard is visible from apartment windows, creating passive surveillance and adding to safety. Outdoor (but covered) apartment corridors provide generous space for storing of prams and bikes as well as for parents to sit outside whilst watching children play below.

Going inside, a shared indoor space runs activities such as cooking classes and music nights. A generously spaced lobby area features seating and toys. Within corridors, children are encouraged to put up drawings on walls – one shared drawing features a large tree along with hands of different children. Many doors within apartments feature names of the children within – kids wanting to know if “Johnny’ can come and play can easily find his apartment and knock on his door.

(First Avenue Housing Development, Vancouver, Canada source: Natalia Krysiak) (see also image below)

Policy Needed

When it comes to children in apartments, Krysiak says Australia lags on policy direction.

Overseas, cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and London have guidelines and minimum requirements for family friendly apartments. In London, for example, new multi-residential developments must provide a minimum of ten square meters of open play area for every child living within the complex.

in New South Wales, by contrast, the Apartment Design Guidelines do not specify any minimum play area requirements and contain only vague mentions of play and provision for children.

In a recent High Density Living document published in the London borough Tower Hamlets, the word ‘play’ is mentioned 197 times. In the NSW Apartment Design Guide, the word appears six times only.

As well, Krysiak would like greater protection for children in body corporate laws.

As things stand, she says there are few limits on bylaws which can be made covering common areas of apartment complexes. Should a majority of owners consider children’s play in areas such as corridors to be disruptive, bylaws can be made to restrict this from occurring.

Another view, First-Avenue-Housing-Development-Vancouver_Natalia-Krysiak

Co-Designing with Children

When designing for children, Krysiak says feedback should be sought from children themselves.

In a recent (pre-COVID) workshop run in Brisbane, children were given a model of the community and asked to place pins on areas they liked or disliked. Much of the feedback was insightful as children identified features such as the location of the worst smelling plant or the shops with the worst rubbish.

She encourages architects to rethink how they design for children.

“I think we need to look move away from the idea of neighbourhood with a playground,” Krysiak said.

“We need to look at creating neighbourhoods with a diverse network of play opportunities.”

(top image: Home Zone in Freiburg Harry Schiffer)