Extensive opportunities for age-appropriate play in safe, stimulating places are a key ingredient in the social, physical, psychological and educational development of children. While children instinctively need little instruction on how to play to achieve positive outcomes, age-appropriate supervision is a key enabler for those activities and is a role that promotes rich interaction and connection with other adults and the children. Conversely, the absence of safe child-friendly places to play and lack of caring supervision could leave children at heightened risk of injury or harm.
Well-designed, nature-based play areas provide a broad, flexible canvas for a range of play, family and community activities. They can easily incorporate cultural symbols and references (including language) using cheap, locally available materials to create unique, place-based designs and constructed using simple, low cost methods. Templates for outdoor design based on core design theory can be created, adapted and/or replicated to suit local communities and settings to suit a wide range of age groups. This potential for positive impact on children and local communities appears to be currently both under-recognised and under-utilised.
The opportunities and benefits of place-based social and play spaces include: cultural transmission of language and stories, literacy and numeracy skill development, gender and/or age separation for developmental, cultural and risk management requirements of each community using careful but subtle design options, and community driven opportunistic or planned preventive health strategies (including mental health promotion). In addition, the healing and protective effects of play and its effective supervision can be powerful tools in minimising the risks of harm associated with isolation ‘behind closed doors’ and for reinvigorating the power of communities to take care of their own.
We will explore key design theories that support the development of safe play spaces and research that explores the impact of child-directed play in child and community development as well as their combined role in preventing and healing the impact of trauma and the risks faced by children when such spaces are not available. We will also provide examples of how communities might create such spaces with little money and maximum cultural and community impact.