Public spaces are laboratories where children play and learn in multiple ways, such as cognitive skills: an individual’s ability to perform various mental activities most closely associated with learning and problem solving. It refers to things like memory, the ability to learn new information, information processing and reasoning ability. Playing outside can stimulate these skills. When children are exploring and discovering the public space it puts their brain to work. For example by observing and identifying different objects, shapes, forms and colors. Or by experiencing speed and balance on a swing, slide or tree stump. And by interacting with other persons they develop important language skills (verbal and nonverbal).
Additionally studies show that playing increases school performance because it contributes to mental fitness and attention/concentration restoration. Playing as a refuge from more 'stressful' indoor life, such as tasks and peer pressure in the classroom. The story goes that children diagnosed with ADHD receive as much benefit from walking in a park as they do from leading medication therapies.
While playing, children can experience and express real emotions, because they are more tolerated in a play situation. They build emotional resilience through trying out new experiences with the possibility of failure. When playing outside children respond to new circumstances and adapt to a wide variety of situations (expect the unexpected). Without these experiences kids grow up overcautious in everyday situations, or they are unable to judge potentially dangerous situations.
Playing games with other children also teaches them to show empathy and how to deal with losing and disappointment. At the same time they learn that everyone has different talents and that life is full of second chances. Important skills they need when they become older.
Besides being an important learning tool playing is also - certainly from the point of view of children - about pleasure. It's an enjoyable activity engaged in by choice and for your own sake. In your own time, following your own ideas. And conducted in a cheerful and non-stressed fashion. Play as intrinsically motivated behavior.
It is, as we shall see later, a misconception that play must be something organized or tangible. Children take the greatest pleasure from unstructured and self directed play. Giving room for symbolic and constructive play.
"It is often assumed that children play in the street because they lack playground space. But many children play in the streets because they like to." William H. Whyte, 1980
Identity and personality
Playing, especially away from adult supervision, allows children to explore the world on their own terms and create their own identities. With playing children get time and space to form their own character. Studies shows that children brought up in an overprotective environment are likely to develop an under-confident and over-dependent personality. Outward exploration, freedom, and room for trial and error are vital for the development of independence and identity.
"People adjust to their surroundings and extract structure and identity out of the material at hand."
Kevin Lynch, 1960
Kevin Lynch, 1960
Public spaces are the magnet that brings people together. They play an important role as participatory, socializing and inclusive spaces. It can stimulate social encounters between parents, between kids and parents, and between kids. Making new friends.
Playing can also overcome certain boundaries and help children (and parents) to understand people from other backgrounds. By intermingling they experience diversity. In other words: an informal setting can help to connect people of different ages, abilities, interests, and culture. This interaction can be superficial or more substantial, involving mingling, collaboration, sharing or exchange. Sometimes culminating in a sense of community.
When kids are playing outside, they can learn with their whole body. When they perform a specific act they practice the precise movement of muscles: their fine and gross motor skills. The building blocks of all later physical activity. That already begins at a very young age when babies try to reach, grasp and explore objects. Vital to hand-eye coordination and fine motor control. During their second year kids become mobile and have to cope with different physical challenges. Learning how to stand, walk, run, and sitting upright. Outdoor playing can stimulate (eye-hand) coordination and balance abilities, culminating in a reductions of falls. But this physical exploration also creates body awareness and muscular strength. And with outdoor playing kids gain experience with movements such as catching, climbing, hanging, jumping, kicking, opening, rolling, screwing, throwing, turning and twisting.
What applies to adults also applies to children: regular physical activity builds strong bones, lung capacity and endurance. It provides a healthy weight and it reduces the risk for developing chronic disease risk factors (diabetes, cardiovascular disease). Kids who play more outside get more exercise, breathe more fresh air, eat and sleep better and their absence at school due to sicknesses is lower. To achieve this, the World Health Organization recommends at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. The extent to which children achieve this is influenced by personal characteristics (age, sex, socioeconomic status), but also by their physical and social environment. The way a neighborhood is designed has a major influence on outdoor play behavior. Due to for example the presence and accessibility of play areas and recreational facilities. The same applies for the extent to which caregivers allow their children to play freely and if they set a good example (role model).
Life consists of ups and down. Also at a very young age kids are searching for the right balance between our skills and limitations. They learn a lot about their strengths and the risks when they play outside in unknown, challenging territories. With every time new circumstances (e.g. diversity in locations, bystanders, and weather).
There is a general tendency to design public spaces as safe as possible in combination with adult supervision. But to keep it interesting for kids it also has to be challenging. Children thrive on risky play. Activities including climbing trees and rough tumble games not only increase play time, but also help the assessment of risks and to improve creativity and resilience. Besides challenging attributes, children also benefit when they are free to choose their own activities without restrictive supervision. In this way they can explore their own limits.
Self-esteem and confidence
Following this line, playing also gives satisfaction and a sense of achievement. When kids successfully deal with a challenge it has a positive influence on their self-esteem, self-assurance and self-efficacy. Fostering their personal development and autonomy. And building on their reliance to explore spaces further afield. Building a sense of confidence and resilience so that it is possible to deal with setbacks.
"Play is recognized as [...] testing one's abilities and improving them in a non threatening, non-embarrassing way, because the level of challenge is self-chosen." Arza Churchman, 2003
As said before, public spaces are educational environments for children. Also on a social level. It enriches social skills like arguing, collaborating (teamwork), communication, free expression, helping, interacting, negotiation, sharing, and solving conflicts or problems. When playing with other people they can cultivate mutual trust and respect. They learn to see things through another person’s point-of-view and how to bridge these differences. And they are getting familiar with the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Creating social norms and values.
Walking or cycling through and playing in a neighborhood make kids more aware of their environment. It enriches their spatial cognition and mapping abilities. It gives them a sense of place and makes them in a way 'streetwise', creating the ability to navigate and experience a city. When children are driven by their parents to school or indoor facilities it is much harder to develop these spatial skills and children will have less perception and relationship with their environment.
This adaption of children to their environment does not only apply to the spatial skills, but also for their connection to the natural environment. Playing outside - in particular in a natural environment, but also in cities - creates sensitivity towards nature. For example by experiencing the seasons it makes children aware of natural processes (grow, bloom, wither) and their effects on attributes (slippery, wet). And when they are picking flowers, looking for insects, feeding ducks or rolling over the grass they get opportunities to understand and respect the natural world.
These goals have been determined on the basis of an extensive desk research of international publications and websites about public spaces (for kids). For the ease of reading I have omitted the literature references. On the page 'sources' you will find all the input I used.
(c) Photo's by Gerben Helleman