1st June 2021

Aishath Green for CatalyticAction

In recent months, there has been a renewed focus on the importance of play and with good reason. As cities across the globe have been locked down, children’s capacity to quite literally stretch their legs has been hampered. In the UK (link), this has led to calls for children to enjoy the benets that play brings – not just in their free time, but also in schools as a necessary feature of their everyday education. We strongly agree!

The need for a focus on play is vital because while it provides children with a dose of physical activity, and the space to have fun, it’s also pivotal to their psychological development. As Michael Rosen says (link), play is “an opportunity to invent, improvise, adapt, be creative with the world around you and with the world inside your own head”. But, it also teaches children key skills that will enable them to ‘cope with life’ (link). The ample benets that play brings means we have to make the time and space for it to happen.

Crucially, this is not just about creating playgrounds, but also about integrating opportunities for play throughout the city. With reports (link) indicating that “even small physical play interventions such as line markings can increase the physical activity of children”, we need to think carefully about how urban spaces are designed to cater for children’s experience. This cannot be a ‘passive’ (link) process, but requires action from those working at the forefront of urban design, and crucially, input from the people the physical interventions are meant for – young folks. This blog will explore why play is so important for children and their communities – especially those in vulnerable contexts – and what we’re doing to promote opportunities for play, in Lebanon and beyond.

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The benets of play

Play is benecial both for children’s physical and mental health. Yet, while it’s well understood that play contributes positively to children’s physical wellbeing, its psychological impact can be less apparent. As children play, they learn vital skills and build up resilience, which studies have shown can increase their ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances as they enter adulthood. As Natalia Krysiak (link) has stated, “studies in neurological science show that a brain which is provided with opportunities for play and exploration, can adapt better in unknown environments and unexpected situations”. When children are given the freedom to play, Krysiak afrms that “they learn that they are in control over their own lives (and not regulated by external factors beyond their control)”. The skills that provide children with this outlook are developed through play as they learn to become independent, to negotiate, to deal with risks, conduct social relationships and importantly ‘understand fairness and unfairness’ (link). As Krysiak highlights, these lessons are all a ‘vital component of mental wellbeing’ and can decrease the likelihood that children may develop anxiety or depression later on in life.

Play has wider effects too, and can be particularly important for community integration and development. Increased spaces and opportunity for play can encourage ‘a sense of belonging’ (link) for children in their community. As they interact with local spaces and foster relationships with their peers, children develop both an ‘increased spatial understanding of their neighborhood’ (link) as well as an enhanced commitment to those places. This is not just the case for children, but also their caregivers and nearby residents. As Krysiak states (link), “studies have also shown that where children play, adults also tend to gather which can have positive economic benets for surrounding businesses”. While this creates nancial incentives for creating play spaces, it also ‘foster[s] social networks and promote[s] communities which participate in volunteering, actively look after their neighbourhood and one another”.

It is important to add that pivotal to this process of community development is the need to include children and their caregivers in the design of these spaces. It’s no use creating a space that’s out of sync with what the community both needs and desires. We believe that interventions to create opportunities for play must therefore be underpinned by methods of co-design, that both enable and incorporate communities’ ideas.

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Play, vulnerable contexts + co-design

One area where play can have a particularly transformative impact is for children within vulnerable contexts. In collaboration with UCL, we’ve developed a handbook that explores its benets for children affected by displacement. It elaborates on how co- designed built interventions that enable children to participate, can aid them with their recovery process. Through our research (link), we discovered that good quality schools, childcare facilities and safe spaces for play and learning can help children overcome distressing experiences. In addition to support provided by families, the restoration of routine, order and opportunities for play, can create a sense of coherence for children who have been faced with difcult circumstances. It allows for ‘pretending (link), making up rules, using objects symbolically [and] allowing children to take risks in a safe space’. This in turn helps children to develop resilience, positive physical health and adaptive systems that can enhance their wellbeing as they grow up. The handbook emphasises the fact that while spaces for play are important, they must be designed in collaboration with children.

“While adults may build places for children...these places may not meet children’s needs. Children should therefore be actively involved in designing and planning spaces that are meant for children.”

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Early Childhood Development

It’s critical that designs for play spaces also take into account the needs of younger children, aged 0-5. Studies have shown (link) that “the early years of a child’s life are crucial for healthy physical and mental development, and neuroscience research demonstrates that a child’s experiences with family, caregivers and their environment provide the foundation for lifelong learning and behaviour”. It’s important then, that babies and toddlers living in cities are provided with ‘safe’ and ‘stimulating’ physical environments to explore. In collaboration with ARUP (link) and the Bernard van Leer foundation (link) we participated in creating the Proximity of Care design guide which provides a blueprint for creating spaces that take into account the specic needs of young children, their caregivers and pregnant women. Focussing on health, protection, stimulation and support, it considers this from the household, neighbourhood and city level. A recent project conducted by Superpool (link) in Istanbul illustrates how simple changes to urban spaces can create the opportunity for children to play. By transforming a parking lot in a busy urban neighbourhood into a plaza with spaces for play, socialising and rest, the project not only slowed down the trafc and created clearer routes for pedestrians, but also enabled the opportunity for children to learn through play. Indeed, they stated that the intervention in this public space saw a ‘43% increase (link) in children using the streets independently’, as well as ‘3.5 times more babies and toddlers spending time at the site (link)’. More spaces like this please!

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Creating opportunities for play in El Mina

Our research for the Proximity of Care design guide was carried out in El Mina in Tripoli, a city in Lebanon. In El Mina there is an area known as the Corniche, it’s a seaside promenade which extends for 7km, and its proximity to many vulnerable neighbourhoods makes it a key public space where children and their families can socialise and play. However, like many public spaces in Lebanon, the Corniche lacks vital infrastructure that hinders its capacity as a safe public place. Through tactical interventions such as access ramps, paved areas, benches, shades, greenery and street games for children, we are coordinating a project that will ensure the Corniche can be a safe public space where children and their caregivers can come to play and relax. This is vital because as Krysiak (link) has said, ‘one of the underlying principles in creating a more playful city, is to dispel the perception of play as something that should only occur in the enclosed ‘playground’ and instead allow it to naturally lter into every corner, cranny and void throughout the city’.

To ensure that these tactical interventions realise their full potential and allow for play to occur, this project will also create safe access routes to the Corniche from the neighbourhoods nearby. As Krysiak (link) has said, ‘one of the underlying principles in creating a more playful city, is to dispel the perception of play as something that should only occur in the enclosed ‘playground’ and instead allow it to naturally filter into every corner, cranny and void throughout the city’.

To ensure that these tactical interventions realise their full potential and allow for play to occur, this project will also create safe access routes to the Corniche from the neighbourhoods nearby. As Krysiak affirms “allowing children above a certain age the freedom to access their neighbourhood independently frees up time for parents who would otherwise have to drive their children to all activities”. We will thus create ‘safe links’ with infrastructure such as street crossings, sidewalks, ramps and speed bumps to facilitate easy access to the Corniche. On the Corniche itself, painted motifs on the floor will allow children to interact with the spaces around them, while also providing wayfinding opportunities towards the seafront. We’ll share more details about this project soon!

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Play is pivotal to children’s development and provides exciting and necessary opportunities for exploration, creativity and learning. Yet, while children are brilliant at creating their own opportunities for play, tactical urban interventions are needed if they are to be given ample opportunity to benet from the positives that play can bring. In the urban context, we must remember that ‘the whole built environment is a critical play and informal learning resource (link) for children’. However, there needs to be action, guidance and participation along the way!

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