It's Children’s Mental Health Week and this year it feels particularly important to raise awareness of the subject. Play has long been proven to be a key benefit to children’s development and mental wellbeing – with outdoor play being particularly important. At a time when we are all advised to stay as close to home as possible, we should look closely at our surroundings and think about how they could be better designed to accommodate play.
When we think about incidental play, we often focus on the benefit of doorstep play for younger children i.e. playable spaces where carers can be nearby to supervise, and rightly so. However, the pandemic has shown that children of all ages need incidental play too. Play has so many benefits and even small moments of outdoor play can be incredibly beneficial to mental health, particularly when they enable social interaction. Benefits range from the development of social skills and the ability to cooperate with others, stimulation of the mind, boosting creativity, development of risk management, fostering a connection with the environment and nature, to name but a few.
Incidental play in the public realm
When we work on play strategies for the public realm, we don’t just think about designated play space, we look at how play can be interwoven into the broader context by making other space playable. In our Peckham Landscape project we utilised a multifaceted play strategy to enable all of the communal amenity spaces to be playable. While there is a significant focus on the provision of play space for the under 5s we also ensured that there are spaces for young people to engage, socialise and ‘hang out’. Traditional play equipment is provided in just a few areas of the development because there is ample provision for incidental and naturalistic play in the multifunctional spaces we designed.
Illustrative view of play strategy for the Peckham Landscape
The designs aim to be welcoming for children and young people of all ages and abilities, and for parents and carers, as well as any resident from within the development. The benches are designed to be robust enough to run along and jump off, the paving is patterned and planted into to encourage games and imaginative play. The planting design is rich, vibrant and sensory. This multifaceted play strategy provides play potential for different age groups and abilities at different times of day, ensuring play can is always accessible.
While this approach can be readily introduced into new developments, it’s also good to think about how we can add to our existing public realm in either a temporary or a permanent way. Play streets are a lovely way to achieve this – streets are taken over on a temporary basis to allow for play. The organisation Playing Out champion this concept and highlight how important streets are to the local community - they make up the majority of our public realm and are extremely under-utilised in terms of playability. Their open letter to the Prime Minister highlights how crucial outdoor play is to children’s health and wellbeing.
Children playing out on a pedestrianised street
Beyond playing out, we need look at more permanent interventions that encourage play. Could street trails become more common place? Could parking spaces on our streets be converted into pocket parks? Simple interventions like these can have an immensely positive impact on the community.
Going forward, play for all ages and abilities should be considered at all scales in the urban context. It’s more important than ever to provide safe and engaging spaces for kids to play and improve their physical and mental wellbeing.
Incidental play in a communal amenity space