Sue Gutteridge and Judi Legg on consulting children

Consulting children – a shoal of red herrings

In this, the first of two articles, Sue Gutteridge and Judi Legg, jointly responsible for the commended play areas and playable spaces in Stirling, and now, happily, PLAYLINK Associates, discuss consultation with children and young people. In the second article, to be published here in January, they will offer a practical example of an approach to learning from and about children and their play.

‘Every father knows the loathed park and playground in the unmoving air of Sunday morning (every mother knows it Friday evening, Tuesday afternoon – every other time), the slides and see-saws and climbing frames like a pictogram of inanity.’ Martin Amis, The Information

There’s a lot wrong with public play areas in the UK. Whether we’re talking about the graffitti ridden, litter strewn ‘Dogshit Park’ of Martin Amis’ novel The Information, or the identikit smart new shiny metal primary coloured rubber surfaced enclosures – examples of both can be seen everywhere – children’s engagement with them is short-lived.

Research repeatedly tells us what we already know, and also remember from our own childhoods, that such places – unsurprisingly – are not where children most like to play; and observing children at play on them we see the superficial and restricted nature of the play opportunities they offer. It is the failure to put knowledge of children’s play at the centre of the design and management of public play areas that is responsible for this state of affairs.

Over the last five years or so, increasing amounts of mainly capital funding has become available for public play areas, at least in England, through the Big Lottery and the Pathfinder and Playbuilder programmes. For these funders of public play areas, as well as for local authorities commissioning and providing them, it has become axiomatic that ‘consultation’ with the world and her dog is an essential part of the process of achieving good play areas, the implication being that the failure to do this in the past is the cause of the dire play areas that we have. The importance of including children in this process, who are not infrequently styled ‘the experts’ in play, is emphasised – and it’s not just ‘consultation’ we’re talking about, it’s their ‘involvement’ in ‘planning, designing and managing public space’ ( see UK Government’s ‘Fair Play’ consultation paper)

The result of a consultation: a playground in the UK

Inflated and unrealistic

At the same time public play areas have somehow worked their way into our consciousness and into public policy as vehicles for inflated and unrealistic aspirations. We expect them to regenerate poor neighbourhoods, lower crime rates, create a sense of community. This has contributed to ever more complicated and demanding processes of ‘consultation’, ‘involvement’, ‘engagement’, ‘empowerment’ etc generating their own armies of professional consulters, involvers , engagers and empowerers. And all the time, we get further and further away from the real and much simpler question: how to make nice places and look after them properly.

Many of those trying to make nice places find that ‘friends of’ groups can be anything but, that ‘consultation’ can operate as a reactionary and obstructive force and that the most elaborate processes of consultation and involvement, whether with children or adults, may feel and be irrelevant to the process of creating good public play areas.

In this article we will expand on our belief that while knowledge of children and children’s play is central to the design and management of good public play space, consultation with children (or adults) as it’s usually understood and carried out not only contributes nothing to creating good play spaces, but can also be detrimental to it. In our next article, we will look at more meaningful ways of learning about children’s play and involving children in the process of creating good play areas.

As pointed out in the September 2008 Green Spaces article, ‘Consultation: don’t ask?’, much consultation about public play areas treats people as consumers, asking about their ‘wants’ and ‘choices’ rather than as trustees of public assets with a responsibility to think about people other than themselves, and about the future as well as the present. This approach is equally problematical when applied to children and is a result of the void at the heart of much of the thinking about play and play space. ‘Consultation’ – whether with adults or children – is used as a substitute for the point of view that adults should but don’t have about what constitutes a good play space. The absence of an informed point of view creates a void filled by the wares and marketing techniques of playground equipment manufacturers, along with the newly spawned professions and specialisms of consulters, engagers and participation facilitators. Play areas become in fact, and in the minds of both providers, consulters, and users, nothing but fenced collections of manufactured playground equipment on rubber surfacing.

When play areas are ‘procured’ by tendering to various play equipment manufacturers the nature of this process is particularly obvious. However, even when a professional play area designer is commissioned, the designer alone is powerless in the absence of a strong client with a clear brief. The client as well as the designer needs to have a ‘point of view’ and to care enough about it to be able to share and defend it.

So, what about ‘asking the children’?

So in this context, how do children get consulted? They may be asked to write, draw or indicate with stickers what they ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ about an actual or proposed play area. There will be an inevitable tendency to focus on ‘things’ rather than ‘experiences’ and on the more obvious and superficially exciting elements of provision. They may be asked to envisage, using similar means, their ‘ideal’ play area, where their limited experience – limited both by their age and the existing poverty of provision – will prompt them to want what already know.

Methods will often be based implicitly or explicitly on a concept of play areas as collections of equipment. A particularly telling example of this occurred as part of the ‘Fair Play’ government consultation on play in summer 2008 which included a ‘fun, interactive website which gives the children the chance to design their own play space using playground favourites such as see-saws and round-a-bouts mixed with more modern structures such as wooden climbing walls.’

Asking children direct questions about what they ’like best’ or ‘enjoy most’ in a play space is not necessarily going to tell you what actually engaged them most. Our own experience appears to confirm this:

Matthew, aged eight, was observed for two hours at a play area. On arrival he went straight to the flying fox, where he played for ten minutes. The rest of the time was spent transferring water (in crisp packets) from a paddling pool to a sand play area where he built dams and channels. Asked as he was leaving what he’d liked best about the play area, he cast his eye around and said ‘the flying fox’ – a more obvious visual feature of the space, and an experience much easier for him to articulate.

While methods of consultation may vary, and drawing, model making computer games and so on are more engaging activities than filling in questionnaires, they fall down in the same way – they have no meaningful relationship to the design process if it exists and are irrelevant if, as is more usual, it doesn’t. Either way, they have no discernible effect on outcome. They are therefore tokenistic and in that sense damaging to children in terms of the lessons they will actually be learning from these experiences.

Informing knowledge

So how do we ensure that knowledge of children’s play informs design?

While developing, and having a play strategy and adopting design principles can help shape a client’s intent and help defend a design ethos from attack by those consulted, the quality and usefulness of these documents still depends on the client’s robust determination to prioritise and champion the type of play provision that has observed high play value.

Just as importantly the designer and client must also commit to spending time developing an understanding of what engages, what remains interesting to, children after repeated visits, and what offers the best opportunities for many different and interesting kinds of play. But note here that many designers never visit a space again once completed. They don’t take the time to watch and learn from the children themselves. And many clients, if they evaluate space at all, do it only from a superficial ‘how many visits’ perspective, or simplistic questionnaires about notional ‘levels’ of enjoyment.

Neither necessary nor sufficient

The result of no consultation: a playground in Copenhagen

Two straightforward facts need to be honestly faced: there are many woeful playgrounds procured as the result of ‘consultation’ with children; and there are examples of outstanding play environments that have been created without such consulation..

Helle Nebelong, at the time chief landscape architect for Copenhagen, did not consult children when she designed Valby Park and The Garden of Senses. However, Helle does have a very strong understanding of children’s needs and a clear vision of what is required. She emphasises the significance of unpredictability and the role of the child’s imagination saying:

‘I am convinced that standardised playgrounds are dangerous. When the distance between all the rings in a climbing net or a ladder is exactly the same, the child has no need to concentrate on where to put his feet. Standardisation is dangerous because play becomes simplified and the child does not have to worry about his movements. The lesson cannot be carried over to all the knobbly and asymmetrical forms with which one is confronted throughout life… If everything is not the same and predictable, a child’s fantasy is sharpened……everything should not be explained, demystified beforehand’.

Susan Humphries, Head of Coombes Infant School in Berkshire, has over a period of 30 years created inspiring grounds. This was achieved not through discussions with children but through continual observation of the children at play outdoors and the development of informed conclusions about what it is the children need to be “nourished” in a very broad sense. Discussions with children of course take place with the aim of maximising the learning and participation of the children – this is not the same aim as doing it to inform the design brief.

The design for the beautiful and successful Princess Diana play area at Kensington Gardens in London was the result of the strong brief from the client and the effective and continuing collaboration between client and designer. While information and concepts were shared informally and discussed with children using the play area that already existed on the proposed site, there was no expectation that the children themselves could, or should, provide those concepts. The concepts and ideas were already in the minds of the client and the designer

These examples illustrate some key points:

  • Consultation is not necessary for good design
  • What is necessary for good design is an understanding of children and play
  • Useful discussion may take place, but it depends on the presentation and sharing of an informed point of view

It is both courteous to share ideas and satisfying to know you are taking people along with you – however the fact that this may be important in its own way, is not the same as saying it is a requirement for achieving good play provision.The relationship between the client and the designer, and the ‘ownership’ of the project by both are key factors. It can help if the client and designer are the same person. Helle Nebelong was to all intents and purposes both client and designer for Valby Park and the Garden of the Senses. In the case of Coombes Infant School, there was no professional design input, but rather organic and continually evolving development. Susan Humphries (the client) maintained a coherent and holistic concept of the grounds and personally managed and oversaw the physical changes – in that sense she was the designer. At Kensington Gardens, the client drew up and was committed to a very strong brief that expressly precluded a ‘traditional’ equipment based approach, and was actively involved throughout the design process.

So how can clients and designers acquire the knowledge about children and play that they need, and how can involving children help the design process? In the next article we go into some detail of a programme of engagement with children –‘Roving Reporters’ - that was designed for this purpose and carried out in Stirling over several years (and continues).The key point, one upon which it is useful to end, is that the two authors here (as client and designer) made a commitment to observing children at play outdoors to discover how they can be provided for in public play areas. Observing, reflecting, informal conversation, and interpreting all these. In other words, fulfilling one’s responsibility as an adult.