The Case for Landscape Play: Using design to foster social connectedness

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A few months ago, a video of two teenagers from the Pukatawagan First Nation in Manitoba jumping, climbing and engaging with natural spaces in their community went viral. In a CBC online feature, they speak about how the playing in naturally challenging environments teaches them to overcome obstacles, and gives them the desire to inspire other people in their community to increase their level of physical activity.

Play is a fundamental aspect of childhood, but it is thought to be in decline, leading to devastating mental, social and physical effects on kids growing up today. Peter Gray, an American Psychologist is one of the people documenting this phenomenon and advocating for the importance of play.

“Play, especially social play with other children, serves a variety of developmental functions, all of which promote children’s mental health. In the absence of such play, children fail to acquire the social and emotional skills that are essential for healthy psychological development,” he writes in the Journal of Play.

Creating inclusive play environments that foster a sense of social inclusion for children is one solution that landscape designers and architects are working on to prevent children from experiencing the harmful effects of a lack of play.

Sara Brunelle recently graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Master’s program in Landscape Architecture and is currently a Landscape Designer at Studio MLA. A study she worked on during her master’s program is called Risky Play Meets Nature Play. It examined how play space design affects children’s overall health and wellness. It is set to be released later this year. She joined us to share her observations on building inclusive playgrounds for children through landscape design.

“Unhealthy playspaces are everywhere,” she says. “I think it has gone completely overboard and we are in this phase where we want to protect our kids from our external environment so much so that they are not learning really necessary things.” Brunelle explains how children develop their sense of self, physicality as well as learn how to overcome social challenges and danger through risky play.

Risky play relates to activities that could potentially result in injury, but can teach a variety of other social and motor skills. Playing in the forest and climbing trees and other natural and manmade structures are some examples of this type of play. Last summer, Maclean’s magazine published an interview with the head of the study, Dr. Mariana Brussoni, exploring the benefits of risky play.

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Michael Caroe Andersen

Problems arise when play spaces are overly secure, fenced in, and completely void of natural materials such as rocks, pebbles, sand, plants and trees. Brunelle relates fenced in, plasticized play environments to the way zoos used to be. “Talk about an isolating landscape,” she says. She describes the image of a twisting lion locked in a cage, unable to move and explore freely.  “I feel our current play typology is kind of similar and I think we are going to bust down those fences and make something different. Less of a cage.” says Brunelle.

In order to answer the question of if natural play spaces with challenging play opportunities influence child behaviours and social interactions, Risky Play Meets Nature Play used design principles to create healthier, more dynamic play spaces. Seven C’s is a set of guidelines that link the physical elements of a play environment with what is known about how young children develop. They consist of character, context, connectivity, change, chance, clarity, and challenge.

After revamping play spaces using these principles, Brunelle saw a number of positive results in children including more socialization and inclusion, focus, creativity, problem-solving skills and self-confidence. She also saw a decrease in depression, anxiety, boredom and bullying. She could visibly see an increase in happiness and engagement.

“I think it’s about expanding our vision of what opportunities are in a playspace right now,” says Brunelle. “It’s really focussed on physical motor skills. We want kids to climb, use the monkey bars and slide down.” She explains how these environments are designed for children with a high level of motor development, but can exclude those who are perhaps less athletic or younger, creating a sense of social isolation.

“What you really have to do is create a diversity of environments so that a kid who perhaps has to work more on his social skills, or maybe is a more dramatic kid who could use more of a space for dramatic play can have those opportunities in the same space,” she says. “It is about taking the square we are given in urban environments and creating a space where all different play environments can happen, not just physical.”

She also feels playgrounds that dominated by physical activities can exclude girls, pushing them to the side and denying them an opportunity to take leadership roles in that space. “You have to give space for people’s physical, mental, social competence so they can explore it,” Brunelle says.

The potential for imaginative dialogue is another positive result of designing more inclusive play spaces. Kids were able to split up into smaller groups, or play individually in a way they were not able to before. Interacting with natural materials such as rocks, pebbles, branches and washed glass allowed an opportunity to stimulate interesting narratives and new games. “It’s just fascinating, the amount of narrative that comes from moving a material hiding it, deciding what it is or isn’t,” says Brunelle.

This interaction with natural materials and plants also instills an environmental awareness and care in young children.”There are several studies that have concluded that earlier life exposure to nature will create environmental consciousness later in life,” explains Brunelle. She remembers her favorite day of the study being when plants were delivered to the playground. “I let the kids tell me where to place them and just the pure joy of that was fantastic. Them having control over their environment and exposure to something beautiful, natural and tactile.”

When Brunelle facilitated an activity asking children to design their own playgrounds, one child designed what he called, “a village of connected villages.” She feels play design can create that type of connectedness the young boy creatively expressed. She also believes people can get behind the idea of designing cities and parks so that kids can have a healthier development environment. She hopes going forward that play will be considered in designing urban spaces, and that policy makers will try to understand play space in a more holistic way.

“I think that we need to create a village of collected villages. We can walk. We can play.  We can really inhabit our neighbourhood spaces… That is positive urbanization,” she says.

Landscape design is one way to create more inclusive play environments and create a sense of social connectedness between children and there are many others. Driven by the idea that a lack of play has a negative impact on the mental, physical and social health of children Global School Play Day was established last year. This year’s celebration of play will took place on February 3, 2016, with the goal of recruiting 100,000 students from around the world to play together. The website for the day lists a number of resources to learn more about the power of play including podcasts, talks and research including a Tedx Talk on the Decline of Play from Peter Gray.