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It's time to start planning for play

The experience of lockdown has shown Eleanor Gingell how much more we can be doing to create space for children within our built environments 

If you’ve ever watched a group of young children, you may have observed them creating imaginary worlds with an exhausting amount of energy. Play is how children learn to understand the world around them. Its benefits are well documented, encompassing social, emotional, intellectual and physical development.

Yet how we plan for play appears to have dropped off the agenda, with no detailed or high-level planning policy in place at a national level in England. Our response to the provision for children’s play has at best become formulaic – an afterthought to ensure that boxes are ticked and the numeric requirements in an ageing SPD have been met, resulting in a ‘KFC playground’. This term, coined by landscape architect Helen Wolly, describes the kind of play area where standard kit (easily maintained and brightly coloured) is fenced off and a safety surface is added.

During lockdown these areas have also been closed and we have had to explore our environment to find new opportunities for play. Indoor spaces have been repurposed. A den has appeared under the kitchen table, plastic dinosaurs roam through seedling forests in our small garden, and the wildlife (mostly snails) has been named and domesticated.

“Is it time we moved away from standardised equipment and created environments that facilitate opportunities for play?”

Yet it is outside, in the planned environment, where we have been forced to alter our behaviour the most. It has been a privilege to be locked down in Milton Keynes. Despite growing up here, it is only since lockdown that I have discovered bridleways high with cow parsley, woods full of wild garlic and trees to climb on, alleyways between buildings, and appreciated the connectedness of its open spaces.

Our favourite place is now the archaeological remains of a Roman villa with stones laid out on top to aid interpretation. These different spaces, each with their own sensory experiences, have enabled play without standard equipment.  

The first Women in Planning South Midlands coffee break focused on urban design. Interestingly, other members had also begun to question how we plan for play. Is it time we moved away from standardised equipment and created environments that facilitate opportunities for play? Is it time to revisit the 10 principles promoted by Play England? With no policy on play in the NPPF, it is up to us as planners, working with urban designers and landscape architects, to rethink approaches to play, post-Covid-19.

Eleanor Gingell MRTPI is a principal planner with WYG. Her views are expressed in a personal capacity.

Image credit | iStock




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