10 Features Children Need in Public Places

This month, we celebrate National Children’s Day on June 10. Children represent hope and potential for the future, so we all have an interest in nurturing their bodies and minds. But many environments where children spend a lot of time are not actually designed with their needs in mind. Grown-ups have to worry about things like budget, maintenance, and building codes. And rightly so...safety is important! But let’s not allow deeper problems to sneak by in the name of safety or financial limitations.

A play deprivation crisis has been looming for many years (“Consequences of play deprivation,” from the National Institute for Play). Greater emphasis on standardized testing and “readiness” for college (or kindergarten!), shrinking school and park budgets, and even changes in urban design trends have reduced the time and space available for children to engage in open play. Play is essential for children’s physical, mental, emotional, and social development (“The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds,” from the American Academy of Pediatrics.)

But not all play is created equal! Traditional playgrounds built on asphalt or mulched with wood chips may be less expensive to build or maintain, but miss out on the benefits of nature and unstructured play. Nature play and adventure play are far more beneficial because they support creativity and problem solving, increase physical activity, and can improve nutrition, eyesight, social skills, and even academic performance (“Benefits of connecting children with nature,” from The Natural Learning Initiative.)

From schools to parks to their own neighborhoods, here are ten features children need and love to see in public places:

1. Water

All living things need water! Water features like ponds or bird baths attract wildlife for children to see. Most kids also enjoy the sensations of water trickling through their fingers or splashing through puddles.

2. Vegetation

Evolutionary psychology suggests that humans are genetically wired to enjoy and benefit from time spent in nature. For most of human history, people have gathered fruits and vegetables to eat themselves or feed to livestock. That hunter-gatherer instinct is often unfulfilled in the urban environments where most of us live. The presence of trees, bushes, flowers, and long grasses provide children the opportunity to play games like hide-and-seek, and learn about nature by gathering and observing leaves, sticks, seeds, and more.

3. Animals

Don’t worry: this doesn’t mean you need to keep a petting zoo on the playground! Children love seeing even the tiniest insects crawling around. Ponds and creeks can be home to native fish and amphibians. Diverse natural habitats full of plants and animals build children’s observation skills and awareness of change over time.

4. Sand and other loose parts

The textural appeal of sand or dirt is surely universal. (After all, no one needs to teach a child to grab a fistful of sand!) Beyond traditional sandboxes, sand can be incorporated into natural water features as part of a collection of “loose parts.” The benefit of loose parts like sand, pebbles, or even water (see above) is that children can define a different play purpose every time. One day they build a sand castle, the next they mix sand with water to form different textures, the next they look for animal footprints in wet sand.

5. Natural colors, diversity, and change

From clothing to toys to food, most items for children are either bright or pastel colors. While young children are drawn to bold colors, there is some evidence that strong colors can be over-stimulating, particularly when used in large spaces. More natural colors can help stabilize mood and build more connections to the outside world. Nature boasts a wide palette from red wild strawberries to blue skies and infinite shades of green and brown. By using colors already found in nature, we can help children understand true diversity and observe change over time. (What color is this tree in the spring? What color is it in the fall or winter?)

6. Varied seating options

Children use their bodies so differently from adults who are conditioned to sit or stand in the same position for long periods. Given free choice, kids may sit or squat on, in, or under any structure they can find, and lean or lay on surfaces that may look uncomfortable to grown-ups! Benches, large rocks, tunnels, logs, or play structures can all provide different places for children to sit and rest, or climb and play.

7. Hidden/private sheltered places

Kids love playing hide-and-seek, but privacy for conversations or just relaxing alone is important for children’s developing social and emotional skills. Tall grasses, shade trees, or nooks and crannies in the play structure can provide safe places to hide within adult line-of-sight.

8. Places that provide a good view

Adults choose real estate based on location, location, location, and interesting views are enjoyed by children as well! Clearing sight lines toward surrounding natural areas, varying elevation and topography, and climbable structures like treehouses are ways to literally expand the horizon for children at play.

9. Changeable structures and materials

Extending the idea of loose parts we discussed in #4, structures that can be changed (either in actuality or through their imagination) promotes creativity and a sense of agency in children. By handling, manipulating, and physically interacting with materials, particularly natural objects, children learn about how the world works. There’s no better physics and materials science lesson than constructing something and watching it fall! Using natural materials as manipulatives can also be far more cost-effective and low-maintenance than manufactured play materials.

A Neighborhood Park for Phase 1 of Stillaguamish Village, designed by The West Studio. This nature playground inspired by the Salish story of "The Stick Game."

10. Equipment imagined by children

Because nature and adventure play are so different from what most people grew up with, involving children, teachers, parents and maintenance staff in the design process is essential to the success of any well-designed play area. Community buy-in, from the youngest members to the oldest, assures that every user will feel included and invested in the use and maintenance of the space.

At the West Studio, we believe that children’s physical, mental, and behavioral health are critically important. We know that access to nature and active play provide myriad benefits to children and, by extension, their parents, teachers, and the entire community. We have years of experience leading community outreach and engagement throughout the design process, and plenty of expertise designing playscapes and parks that incorporate nature holistically and sustainably. If you have questions about how to create vibrant, enriching spaces for children, please reach out to us at any time!

Recommended resources:

Children’s Outdoor Play & Learning Environments: Returning to Nature https://www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/outdoor.shtml

Landscape Design for Children and Their Environments in Urban Context



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