In the hands of a child, a cardboard box can transcend its humble origins to become a racecar, a fort, a cave, a classroom…anything the child can imagine. Similarly, the landscapes that we design for children are the stage on which innumerable dramas, comedies, games, and interactions can unfold, and designing spaces that promote imaginative play can help to support children’s physical, emotional, and social growth. Play that benefits physical health has been a particular focus in the face of increasing levels of childhood obesity—and for good reason, since the importance of movement and activity is so well-documented as to be irrefutable.
While few would argue against the importance of these efforts, we would do children a disservice if we designed spaces meant only to develop their strength and balance at the expense of the emotional and social skills such as creativity, empathy, and cooperation. So while traditional active play is still the default mode for most publicly-funded projects, a thoughtfully designed active play space can also serve to promote imaginative or dramatic play. Moreover, play spaces that stimulate the imagination produce a sense of wonder and possibility, allowing children to create experiences that are different every time and encouraging repeat visits.
Imaginative play—a term used here to include pretend play, sociodramatic play, and other forms of symbolic or “make-believe” play [1, 2, 3]—is when children imagine a situation, take on a role, and act out the situation (either alone or in groups) through words or actions . By acting outside the constraints of reality, children are able to deal with problems and fears, develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and experiment with if-then situations.
Many experts suggest that the best way to encourage dramatic play is to provide children with props and objects which encourage them to take on roles, or to which they can assign roles [3, 5, 6]. However, this research does not translate particularly well to publicly maintained outdoor spaces where theft, vandalism, maintenance, safety, and liability are high-priority concerns, as long-term placement of loose parts on the playground is often out of the question.
Open-Endedness and Abstraction
The principle of open-endedness suggests that we can foster creativity and imagination by providing children with abstract objects to which they can assign various identities, avoiding being too prescriptive of how objects and settings should be used. Open-ended play allows for creativity and self-discovery by removing the pressure of a predetermined outcome, allowing instead autonomy and trial and error. Children’s ability to understand objects as symbols that stand for something else begins around the age of two, laying the foundation for development of creativity and intelligence . Playgrounds that are heavily themed may create a setting that encourages children to act out roles, but doesn’t leave them the flexibility to determine what those roles might be. Open-ended play spaces can allow children to determine for themselves what role they take on, and it can vary with different visits.
Theming and Sense of Place
On the other hand, play spaces that are so open-ended as to be generic may fail to inspire any type of dramatic play. In “Dramatic Play in Outdoor Play Environments,” Pei-San Brown, John Sutterby, and Candra Thornton note that “featureless and cookie cutter play spaces can create a sense of placelessness because children may not be able to form affective relationships with the play spaces” . Themed playgrounds are often seen as a way to create play spaces that are distinctive and memorable, encouraging repeat visits and contributing to local identity. Themes are often selected to create a setting or scene, such as a farm, ship, amusement park, or outer space, with varying levels of realism and abstraction. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith has found that the realism of props and objects has a positive impact on dramatic play for toddler-aged children but no impact for school-age children , so where play areas are separated by age group, theming can be tailored to match age-appropriate play equipment. Alternatively, theming can be expressed as an aesthetic—for example, organic shapes and bright colors, or the inclusion of real or simulated natural materials.
Striking a Balance
Current evidence does not suggest a one-size-fits-all solution for integrating imaginative play into public spaces. Rather, strategies should be selected based on the needs and priorities of the project, and with consideration for how the play space fits into a larger context. Strategies and considerations include:
- Create a moderate level of abstraction – a middle ground between abstract and realistic theming can suggest a setting while allowing for various interpretations.
- Establish a unifying aesthetic – by venturing away from standard post-and-deck structures, an open-ended design can look whimsical and create a sense of place, and custom-looking equipment is increasingly available at standard pricing.
- Include elements that can fit into a variety of make-believe scenarios – elements such as gates, windows, semi-enclosed spaces, tunnels, and talk tubes can be imagined with multiple purposes and encourage children to develop a variety of narratives .
- Create a focal point – where budget doesn’t allow for an entirely custom-designed play area, the inclusion of a single distinctive character-defining element can help create identity. This element could be realistic or abstract, playing with scale, color, material, and spatial relationships.
As with all aspects of design, context is key; when designing a neighborhood park, a survey of other nearby play spaces can reveal a pattern, and breaking this pattern can inspire new types of use. For example, if heavily themed spaces prevail, providing a more abstract and open-ended play area can inspire children who may have become bored with their neighborhood playground to imagine something new; in contrast, a new themed playground that suggests a setting where others are more abstract can promote symbolic play in younger children for whom abstract symbols are more difficult to grasp and assign meaning. By creating a variety of experiences, we can encourage children to seek out new experiences, stretch their horizons, and take advantage of the full spectrum of benefits that play has to offer.
by Brenna Castro, ASLA, landscape architect at Callander Associates Landscape Architecture and Communications Coordinator for the Children’s Outdoor Environments Professional Practice Network
- Pretend Play. Playground Professionals. Accessed April 2016.
- Dramatic Play. Playground Professionals. Accessed April 2016.
- Symbolic Play. Playground Professionals. Accessed April 2016.
- Brown, P., Sutterby, J. A., & Thorton, C.D. (2012). Dramatic Play in Outdoor Environments. Originally published by the International Play Equipment Manufacturing Association. Accessed April 2016.
- Ceccini, Marie E. (2007). How Dramatic Play Can Enhance Learning. Earlychildhood News. Accessed April 2016.
- Bowman, Kara (2009). The Joys of Open-Ended Play. Kasey Kids. Accessed April 2016.
- Trawick-Smith, J. (1993). Effects of realistic, non-realistic, and mixed-realism play environments on young children’s symbolization, interaction and language. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta.