Our first article, a shoal of red herrings, concluded that it is an adult responsibility to make judgments about what constitutes a good play environment, and that much of what travels under the banner of consultation, participation, engagement deflects attention from this.

Fulfilment of this adult responsibility necessarily requires a lively sense of what children and young people need, want and enjoy, along with an alertness to the political dimension of children and young people’s right to play. Rights that can be secured and enforced only by adults.

The quality that adults need to deploy is judgment. And judgment about children and young people’s play wants and needs is founded on:

  • Observation – observing how children and young people play, and want to play, in all its variety.
  • Informal conversations with children and young people.
  • Personal memories of oneself as a child.

Taken together, the three elements, contribute to adults capacity to interpret and come to a judgement about what a play space might look like in a particular location. The approach we have taken in Stirling, is based on these understandings. However, our actual methodology is necessarily flexible and responsive to circumstances. Wishing to learn what we could from children, without abdicating our adult client or designer responsibilities we began to form a programme of engagement called the “Roving Reporters”.

What we wanted to do:

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  • Gain knowledge and information about changes which could be made possible through redesign, minor alteration or changed maintenance (therefore the engagement focuses on sites which have funding).
  • Try to identify which aspects of a play space encourage or discourage children’s engagement (on physical, social, intellectual, emotional, and imaginative levels) for children playing with others or alone.
  • Achieve the connect between the research/engagement/evaluation process and the design.
  • Charge the designer with the responsibility to properly research the potential as well as re-evaluate after the site was “completed” – something which designers/architects rarely do.
  • Avoid a predetermination of the focus of the “investigation” but allow evidence to be demonstrated through play and use.
  • Devise a process that was informed by our beliefs rather than a pseudo-neutral process or even worse, informed by oppositional beliefs.

Seeking a process which was easily accessed by children and applicable to a variety of situations we were aware of the temptation to seek reassurance or “objectivity” in a formal and “concrete” approach involving large sample groups, questionnaires, the promiscuous deployment of post its, tick boxes and “tool kits”. In addition to this “overfishing” we also felt these structures to be neither sympathetic to the way children communicate, nor to the (by definition) “informality” of play. For example, trying to say that ”the monkey bars are too hard to get off as the step down is in the wrong place”, doesn’t easily fit into a tick box approach.

We had previously found that some of the most useful comments and insights made by children happen spontaneously. For example, at Balmaha Play Landscape in Stirlingshire a fallen tree was brought on site for play, and a bark pit was being excavated. Children playing on site that day requested that excavation material was modelled into a defensive barrier and lookout/vantage point to curve around trees which they had adopted as their den. Seeing how this might work the designer incorporated the ideas into the design which has resulted in a successful intervention that remains popular with many children using the play area. However, we were clear that it’s not to say that all children’s suggestions would work and the responsibility of the designer is to consider the merit of the idea and its impact on the rest of the space and users over the longevity of the feature.

And so the Roving Reporter process was devised to be simple and informal, involving two/three visits by the designer to a site with a group of children and their friends. (Appendix A shows range of issues/features that were included as a framework for the observation). The children’s role is to play and the researcher/designer’s role is to observe, discuss and record the quality of play taking place and the opportunities to remove constraints or support play aspirations.

The “Interpreter”

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Although some may claim that this type of engagement allows too much opportunity for “subjective” adult interpretation, we would argue that it is important for the designer/researcher to be forming and adapting a point of view in a way that also allows the closest understanding of what the children are expressing, and about what truly engages them. We find that when parents of the children are present in a supporting role, they can also add very useful context to children’s comments regarding likes and dislikes and tease out the children’s meaning through prompts, and often provide information about what engages them in other environments. So we began to be less afraid of using our judgement to “make sense” of what we were finding.

An illuminating example came after observing a 7 year old boy playing with the sand and water offer on one site. His play had lasted for nearly two hours and had involved a myriad of experiments and creations as well as complex social interactions. Then just before leaving he had a couple of rides on the aerial cableway. “What did you enjoy at the play area?” we asked. “The flying fox” (cableway) came the reply. Are we wrong to make our own judgment about the most engaging play that day? Was his answer not just easier or perhaps what he thought was expected?

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This is not to say that our own beliefs are not challenged (often painfully) by the children.
With no predetermined aims other than the creation of better play opportunities (and not representing an equipment manufacturer) we can be more open to supporting children’s endlessly creative aspirations.

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An example of this occurred during a Roving Report expedition at Beechwood Park, Stirling. We (as client and designer) had assumed that an ancient, large scale metal multi-play structure offering little or no challenge should be removed as part of the ensuing refurbishment. However the children being observed persistently used the unit as the venue or “film set” for elaborate games of star wars. The connecting bridges lent themselves to light sabre battles and the spiral ladders became the vortex which the defeated warriors fell into.

This particular observation gave us some further material: following discussion with the children we drew out their aspirations for even better “film sets” resulting in their creation of jenga brick models to illustrate modifications, greater height, more challenging bridges and interesting ditches and “rivers”. Although some of these modifications are now in the plans for the refurbishments the wider idea of providing a film setting/context for certain types of play is firmly rooted in the designer’s bank of ideas and other current schemes. This was a tipping point for us in reviewing the process and examining its usefulness. Whereas initially we had hoped/expected to inform a particular design or site, we now realised that there were “too many” aspirations to be achieved on one site but they were spilling over and informing interventions across the many sites being developed.

We also realised that the star wars games had been provoked by the mini light sabres the children had brought with them on the first visit so we took care to examine the value of the planned interventions for other uses/users and found that they would contribute to numerous different “imaginings”. However, what we observe children doing is likely to be infinitely variable, dependent on friendship groups, weather, mood (even where a play offer is overwhelmingly prescriptive, children can be counted on to use/misuse it to stimulate variety). And so again the adult/client/designer must use judgement to determine which intervention will support the greatest engagement or the greatest variety of opportunity as well as the quick wins or ‘tweaks’ that can maximise value.

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The children’s role

Achieving the balance between “playing” and “reporting” by the children initially caused us some concern. We certainly wanted to listen and discuss with the children but also wanted the opportunity to observe play that was “as natural as possible”. Latterly we are less distracted by this issue as it became very clear that some children were determined that nothing would distract them from their play anyway, and others donned the role of reporter with a frenzy that would impress the tabloid press! Again this would vary each visit and whilst avoiding certain distractions we concluded that there was also no such thing as “natural play” but only play in any given (and ever changing) context.

Similarly we have learned to avoid soliciting opinions of what is “good” or “bad” in favour of discussion of what can or can’t be achieved.

The scope of the spaces

Although the Roving Reports were yielding a rich trawl of design ideas, easy tweaks and changes to maintenance regimes, we were also discovering that our design approach of maximising the play landscape context was achieving as much, if not more than we had hoped: the provision of sand especially where combined with water enticed children of different ages to play in sustained and diverse ways; we found a greatly increased vigour of movement and imaginative play on sites where equipment is well integrated into the landscape context; the creation of diverse spaces with substantial tree planting creating den areas and special places that changed with the seasons and yielded loose parts/props for play; the creation of a sense of place with locally relevant and bespoke features was connecting with users of all ages. Similarly we discovered that just because a play area is used (often termed “well used”), the play experience for the children is not necessarily a satisfying one, and it was only through observation and discussion we grew increasingly able to discriminate in this way.

In parallel we were increasingly researching the wider play possibilities when drawing together a design brief for new schemes, in order to complement rather than repeat existing opportunity. The joy and fascination of discovering children playing in woods, streams, creating self-built bike tracks, unexpected kick-about areas, dens and bases, is reassuring in these days of reduced children’s mobility and increasing lack of accessible open spaces. Now, thirsty to learn the maximum about the features, prompts and subtle nuances that make these favoured spaces work, the Roving Reporter model is the tangible backbone which supports our approach, keeps children at the centre of the process and often provides the very necessary “evidence” to steer a steady course when the consultation rollercoaster pushes and pulls us away from our goals.

Appendix A

Although not a checklist, it is useful to consider the impact of a wide range of features on the dynamics of a space. However, these factors won’t necessarily arise in the observation of children playing, and may be more relevant to the designers own considerations and judgment.

Features to look at:

  • Boundaries and access: feelings of security; dog supervision issues; access for children with range of needs.
  • Aspect/geographical location: ease of access for unaccompanied children; proximity of other points of interest eg shops, toilets, other playable space; nature of adjacent space/streets.
  • Pathways: pedestrian through routes, infrastructure, children’s own routes/meaningful journeys.
  • Play and Comments Associated with Equipment and Landscaping: this included any aspect that could be played with eg mounds, sand, boulders, slack space, as well as more formal equipment.
  • Other kinds of play/use: observed eg chasing or hiding games using the whole space, games made up by the children).
  • Opportunity for ongoing risk and challenge; opportunity for older children.
  • Opportunity for children with particular needs.
  • Surfaces/materials - water, sand, grit, bark, gravel and ‘natural’ loose materials like leaves, twigs, stones; to identify range and variety and to judge playability.
  • Planting and mowing: trees, shrubs, different lengths of grass, flowers; assessing its play value as well as aesthetic value.
  • Adults: how they are accommodated in their watching/scaffolding/active interaction.
  • Formal/informal seating.
  • General condition and maintenance.

Judi Legg, Playspace Designer, PLAYLINK Associate
Sue Gutteridge, former Head of Stirling Council Play Services, PLAYLINK Associate