The Power of Play: 

  Reconnecting communities post COVID-19 

Our cities will change in ways which are still difficult to imagine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the effects of the pandemic have been devastating to many communities across the globe, some positive discussions have emerged around how our cities could be improved post COVID-19. As we continue to reflect on creating more liveable and resilient cities, it is vital that alongside re-imagined spaces for living, learning and working, we also consider spaces for playing, in order to heal and reconnect fragmented communities.

As the contemporary British painter David Hockney once said “we tend to forget that play is serious”. The power of play to generate neighbourhood life, provide joy to communities and prepare children for an increasingly complex world must not be underestimated. 

 

Below are three ideas to apply to urban design thinking with the aim of creating more playful and connected communities:

1. Create a Network of Diverse Play Opportunities

​​As most cities around the world experienced the closure of playgrounds, many parents have reported finding new and exciting opportunities for play within their neighbourhoods. As one parent noted “explaining to my 3-year-old boy why playgrounds are closed and him suddenly finding opportunities for play everywhere but in the playground has been inspiring”.

 

In the same way that we are now rethinking the notion that a formal office space is the most appropriate environment for “work”, we should also consider diversifying our understanding of what a space for “play” should look like.

 

 

Diagram: Neighbourhood with formal playspaces vs neighbourhood with a diverse network of play opportunities

​Rather than focusing on formal and highly curated spaces for play, we should instead create a network of playable opportunities which are seamlessly integrated into our neighbourhoods and include a diverse range of play experiences.

This means expanding our understanding of what a “playable space” is and unlocking a vast array of possibilities for play to occur on side streets, empty parking lots, natural spaces, transit stops and unused in-between spaces. A network of diverse playable spaces should be overlayed onto any new or existing neighbourhood with the aim of creating accessible and unique opportunities which cater to the needs of each community. 

An example of how this could work is seen in Wales, where every local council has the responsibility for assessing the “playability” of neighbourhoods through a Play Sufficiency Assessment. Rather than simply counting the number of playgrounds, local councils work closely with children within a community to establish a network of unique playable opportunities which directly respond to the children’s needs of how and where they would like to play.

2. Consider Play as a Community Connector

Image: A group of youth cooking lunch on a bon-fire with a playworker at a Play-Yard in Tokyo.

Alongside a consideration for diverse play opportunities within our neighbourhoods, we must also consider how spaces for play can provide environments for social connections and belonging. With more families struggling with mental health and financial challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important more than ever for society to stretch out a safety net to ensure that no child falls behind.

A fantastic example of play spaces which promote community belonging and connection are adventure play-yards which are common throughout many cities in Europe including the UK, as well as Japan. Adventure play-yards provide a natural and adventurous space for children to play, acting as a communal backyard available to local children daily and for free.

 

Importantly, play-yards are staffed by permanent playworkers (funded by the local council) who facilitate playful opportunities and connections between the children. As a permanent space that children can attend daily, connections between the children and play-workers are able to flourish, creating a sense of community and belonging. 

3. Co-create Cities with Children

As we undertake visioning to improve liveability of our neighbourhoods post COVID-19, we must engage in genuine co-creation with diverse groups including our youngest citizens. Engaging with children in the design of our cities will not only help us understand the unique play needs of each neighbourhood, but also ensure that children feel empowered and valued as members of their communities.

Just before COVID-19, Cities for Play along with Nature Play QLD ran a workshop asking children about their experiences, values and play needs. When discussing local play opportunities, the children explored complex opportunities for play within their existing natural environments such as water-play in the local creek, climbing trees in the park and looking after the local animals and plants. The children were able to provide input into their local neighbourhoods and play needs which were sophisticated and hugely insightful to the council planners in the room.

Image: A group of children discussing elements of their local neighbourhood.

As we take the time to reflect on how we might improve our neighbourhoods post the pandemic, let’s not forget the power of the play to enrich and uplift our communities and the importance of genuine co-creation with all members of our society including children.

 

As the architect and child-friendly cities expert, Dinah Bornat said “children are the generators of community life”. With this in mind, let’s re-envision better cities with children’s voices at the forefront and a newly found respect for the seriousness and power of play!

Author: Natalia Krysiak

A practising architect and founder of Cities for Play, Natalia specialised in the design of child-oriented environments. She is a passionate advocate for playful cities and spaces, engaging in placemaking and research initiatives around the world. In 2019 Natalia was awarded a Churchill Fellowship exploring best practice for designing child-friendly, high density neighbourhoods in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Canada and the UK. Her research explores how we can create more playful and child-friendly urban environments.

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