Child’s Play

image: Sandra Wong
image: Sandra Wong

Designing Play Spaces that Support Healthy Cognitive Development in Children

How do you remember the playgrounds of your childhood? Do you rediscover your five-year-old self hiding under a slide, experimenting with mixtures of sand and water until your attention is captured by the sounds from a nearby game of tag? Play spaces have a strong identity that pull on our nostalgic heartstrings. Play is more than a means for children to pass the time and expend their energy. It is a realm of fantastical and cryptic adventures that cradle and nurture the child, molding them into individuals who can think, grow, and connect with others to the best of their abilities.

Play spaces can and should be designed to support emerging behaviors and developing skills in children, from infancy to adolescence. If we design landscapes in a way that is relevant to how children interact with their environments as they grow up, we can transform valuable open spaces into places that are impactful for children.

Children playing along the Toronto Waterfront   image: Sandra Wong
Children playing along the Toronto Waterfront
image: Sandra Wong

“Child’s Play” is a Masters of Landscape Architecture thesis paper presented to the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California. My research consists of analysis of children’s behavioral, physical, and emotional and social development—matching their progression to environmental designs to create holistic landscapes for healthy cognitive development.

The first three stages of children’s development are the sensorimotor stage, preoperational stage, and concrete operational stage.

  1. The sensorimotor stage occurs from birth to two years of age. The child has limited mobility and experiences the world through the senses. Designs should address the need for sheltered environments with materials to stimulate tactile and auditory senses.
  2. The preoperational stage occurs from age two to seven. The child engages in symbolic and pretend play and develops more complex motor skills. Play spaces should address the need for a greater level of physical challenge and novelty.
  3. The concrete operational stage occurs from age seven to eleven. There is a shift to logical thinking and the child uses play as a way to learn rules and social skills. Spaces should provide opportunities for children to expand their reasoning talents and provide challenging places for exploration.
image: Sandra Wong
image: Sandra Wong

My study found that in play spaces, the most significant environmental design elements related to childhood development are:

  • Structures that provide opportunity for climbing, swinging, and sliding
  • Vegetation
  • Loose parts for play and water

These variables provide opportunities for physical challenges, social and emotional development, and sensory stimulation—the most important attributes of successful spaces for child’s play.

The next article in this series will delve further into the environmental designs appropriate for each developmental stage. The last article will explain how the design elements make for well-designed holistic play environments. Stay tuned!

by Sandra Wong, Associate ASLA

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