"Where Will They Play?" Playful Learning in the Classroom and City




July 12, 2021

A few years ago, former educator and co-founder of Design Outsider, Joshua Speedie investigated factors that limited Ontario Grade One teachers from utilizing play activities in their classroom. In light of his career pivot from educator to urbanist & designer, he reflects back on the research findings of his study, and identifies useful frameworks and resources for those aiming to enhance playful learning in our cities, towns and communities. 

Why Play is Critical for Children

When given freedom to select activities, children frequently choose to play [1]. Although there are many diverse frameworks that attempt to define ‘play’, ‘play’ is an elusive term to pin down. Play can include, but is not limited to: pretend play (where children take on alternative roles or create imaginary environments); socio-dramatic play (which can include storytelling or acting out tasks); and constructive play (which can include drawing, painting, and building). In all its types, play is developmentally appropriate and necessary for young children [2]. Along with play, play-based learning is an important aspect in developing children’s language, cognition, self-regulation, and social skills [3-11]. Research indicates that play compliments and does not detract from academic learning [12]. Moreover, it has even been suggested that play is learning [13]. 

Opportunities to Play at Risk

Play is critical to young children’s development and learning, yet is under threat in our cities, towns and communities. As children spend a large portion of their waking life in school, identifying factors that restrict play is important to shed light on what can be done to enhance opportunities to play in the classroom. While play and play-based learning have become cornerstones within the implementation of many early years programs (such as Ontario’s Full-Day Early Learning – Kindergarten Program) [14], it is also critical to be mindful of what have been described as abrupt changes in pedagogical approaches as children enter the primary grades [15]. The importance of play in developing children’s social skills, emotional adjustment, and cognition does not conclude when they leave kindergarten. According to Hartmann and Rollett [16] , “the sudden curtailment of play… hampers creativity and may in the long run, cause an impaired identity formation” (p.196).

Factors Constraining Teachers’ Ability to Carry Out Play Activities

In his study identifying factors constraining teachers’ ability to carry out play activities, Joshua identified pressure to meet curriculum expectations, the school environment, insufficient funding, lack of time, and inadequate professional development on how to integrate play as the reasons teachers believed constrained their ability to carry out play activities. The results reaffirmed other cautionary studies that indicated opportunities to play was increasingly diminishing in schools for this age group. Although United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child [17] and the National Association for the Education of Young Children classify early childhood as up to 8 years old [18], there is not adequate space, time, or materials for play in the majority of Grade One classrooms [19-21]. With play under threat within many schools it is more important than ever for built environment professionals to work together to plan and design child-friendly environments for children of all ages.

Why This Matters for Built Environment Professionals 

While the importance of play to children’s physical health and emotional wellbeing is widely recognized, current trends diminish opportunities to play. Play is often underestimated and confined narrowly to children’s facilities such as school but the decrease of play in many classrooms coincides with the decrease of playfulness more broadly in our cities. In the classroom, standardized, outcomes-based curriculum and assessments, along with a lack of space, funding and time may prevent more teachers from implementing greater play in their teaching. Outside of the classroom meanwhile, play opportunities in cities are often inaccessible, one-dimensional, without the consultation of children, or worse non-existent.

In many of our cities play is increasingly restricted due to a decrease in children’s mobility, increased direct supervision by caregivers and a lack of public green space. Moreover, prevalence and use of screen-based technology has risen dramatically over the past decade that only contributes to a play deficit. This play deficit is amplified in car-centric communities as children are driven from one destination (home or school) to others (e.g., the playground, organized sports) then shuffled back again (see Figure 1) This contrasts walkable neighbourhoods where children have expanded opportunities for play as the route between destinations is safe, convenient and distances are manageable for them to travel (see Figure 2). A network of connected play and playful experiences would enhance accessibility of play for all children.

Figure 1 & 2 (Adapted from "Where do The Children Play" p.17)

No one intentionally wants to create a hostile environment that undermines children’s healthy development, but an uncoordinated approach and lack of understanding can lead many professionals to contribute to designing poor environments for children. The process of designing and managing cities is highly complicated, involving many actors, engaging with multiple contending forces, with interactions between all these. What is often shared (between planning officials, municipal leaders, developers, engineers etc.), is a misunderstanding of how their work can enhance or restrict children’s needs and opportunities for play and learning. Often uncoordinated and uncontrolled policies and programs lead to a poor urban environment for children of all ages. (to read more on an integrated interdisciplinary framework for urban design decision making click here).

Urban Play Framework

Arup recently developed the Urban Play Framework, with the Real Play Coalition and the support of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) to answer the key question "What can contribute to make the built environment an enriching and nurturing play and learning experience for children, to support their optimal development?" (p.18) It presents a holistic method to understand how various urban systems impact children’s play and learning. The framework identifies three connected dimensions to ensure a play-friendly environment optimal to child development and learning. These include: spaces and facilities for play, facilitation for play and time and choice for play. These three dimensions can be advanced through various scales ranging from the household, school, neighbourhood, and wider city (see Figure 3). The Urban Play Framework does not prescribe a ‘right way of play’ but instead provides a framework to ask and understand how and where children play, how much they play, and what could be driving factors that influence this.

Figure 3: The Urban Play Framework, Simplified Visualisation (Source: Reclaiming Play in Cities Report, p.20)

The Urban Thinkscape Program

The Urban Thinkscape program led by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., (Temple University & Brookings Institution), Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., (University of Delaware), Brenna Hassinger-Das, Ph.D., (Pace University) and Itai Palti as the architectural consultant, worked together on a neighborhood installation in Belmont, Philadelphia. The program brings together a wide range of professionals ranging from city planners, architects, psychologists, local civic associations, and community members to reimaging and design neighbourhood spaces to promote the development of language, socio-emotional, and spatial skills. The program builds on the idea that everyday moments such as waiting for a bus or walking home from school are important opportunities for children and caregivers to talk, interact and play.

Urban Thinkscape sought out community participation and knowledge throughout the design and build process. This meant community input to what neighbourhood and lot might benefit from an intervention, reviewing and choosing a design, and engaging in installation, measurement and evaluation. The chosen location Urban Thinkscape was a corner lot with an active transit bus stop that provides a place for residents of all ages to play while waiting for the bus.

Urban Thinkscape, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Source: Playful Learning Landscapes)

During the two-year pilot study the Urban Thinkscape team identified three key lessons:

  • Community involvement vital. The Urban Thinkscape collaborated with community members from the beginning and throughout the design and construction process. Community members helped to collect data and evaluate the project's impact on the neighbourhood.
  • A strong community partner and advocate. The success of the project was influenced by partnering with a strong and active community group involved throughout the process.
  • The project increases interaction and engagement in public spaces. Results from the public space study identified adults and children engaged in more conversations on the site. Also people were more active on the site, engaging with the play elements even compared to a local neighbourhood playground.

No One-Sized-Fits All Approach

There is no 'one-size-fits' all approach to designing child friendly play environments as play can take many forms depending on local conditions. Within reason and regard to safety, we need to shift the conversation and ask not 'why would children play here?' but rather 'how could this place incorporate playfulness?'. While traditional playgrounds are an option, we need to also think of play broadly and consider how can we incorporate playfulness in a wide range of everyday experiences.

Boulder Civic Centre in Boulder, Colorado (Source: Twitter, @AaronBrockett12)
Simcoe Wave Deck, Toronto, Ontario (Source: http://landezine.com/)
Desperate Dan Statue, Dundee, Scotland

Fortunately, there are committed advocates for child friendly planning and design that have written extensively on the topic. These include interventions and strategies at a range of scales. To name only a few:

Independent scholar, writer and consultant on childhood, Tim Gill, has written a new book, Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities” featuring many case studies, exploring unique interventions found in cities all over the world. Gill provides specific examples of how child-friendly design can be integrated into streetscapes, spaces, and master plans. 

To see more on “Urban Playground: How Child-Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities” click here. 

Cities for Play, founded by architect Natalia Krysiak, provides “Designing Child-Friendly High Density Neighbourhoods” a publication of a compilation of global best practice for designing child-friendly neighbourhoods.

A digital version of the publication “Designing Child-Friendly High Density Neighbourhoods” is provided free on their website here

Kate Bishop and Linda Corkery present the experience of practitioners and researchers who advocate and work with children and youth in planning and designing urban environments.

“Designing Cities with Children and Young People Beyond Playgrounds and Skate Parks” can be found here.

Toronto based not-for-profit, 8 80 Cities in collaboration with Eco Kids produced "Advancing outdoor free play and independent mobility as cornerstones of a more child friendly Toronto". The report includes case studies offering inspiration for improving the public realm for children. The report also shares 10 key recommendations for a public realm that affirms children’s right to move freely and be active participants in their city.

The full report can be found here.

Josh Fullan, is the Founder and Principle Consultant at Toronto-based Maximum City. He has written extensively about the role of play in our cities.

His recent article on why cities should 'plan for play' can be found here.


While enhancing play opportunities for children should be a key priority for decision makers, this cannot be detached from other urban issues ranging from transportation, participation, health and wellbeing, and the environment among others. Fortunately a child-friendly approach (that incorporates opportunities for play) can bring together a wide range of progressive agendas - from safety, sustainability, and health and wellbeing. Advancing other causes that can enhance the quality of the built environment for all children provides an opportunity to create an inclusive environment not only for children but all people. As identified by Tim Gill, Adrian Voce, Darell Hammond and Mariana Brussoni “Many more cities and agencies need to take up the cause of child-friendly urban planning: to build culture change and embed successful initiatives in policy, so that it is not left to a few isolated champions but instead becomes mainstreamed. This will require global learning networks that effectively nurture and share successful approaches and take them to scale” [22]. We need to challenge assumptions about play in our cities and question preconceived notions about where, when and how children should play. To realize a more child-friendly and playful vision of the future, we must ‘do design differently’ and motivate and support a diverse range of stakeholders committed to improving children’s quality of life in our cities, towns and communities.

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Additional Resources


  1. [1] Hofferth, S. L., & Jankuniene, Z. (2001). Life after school: From reading at home to playing sports at school, children’s after-school lives vary according to such factors as gender, age, and parent’s education levels. Educational Leadership, 58(7), 19–23.
  2. [2] National Association for the Education of Young Children (2009). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Retrieved from:http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PSDAP.pdf
  3. [3] Briggs, M., and Hansen A.. Play-based learning in the primary school. Sage Publications, 2012.
  4. [4] Timmons, Kristy, Janette Pelletier, and Carl Corter. "Understanding children's self-regulation within different classroom contexts." Early Child Development and Care 186.2 (2016): 249-267.
  5. [5]  Clawson, M. (2002). Play of language: Minority children in an early childhood setting. In J. L. Roopnarine (Ed.), Play and culture studies, Vol. 4: Conceptual, social-cognitive, and contextual issues in the fields of play (pp. 93-110). Westport, CT: Ablex
  6. [6] Davidson, J. I. F. (1998). Language and play: Natural partners. In D. P. Fromberg & D. Bergen (Eds.), Play from birth to twelve and beyond: Contexts, perspectives, and meanings (pp. 175-83). New York: Garland.
  7. [7] Diamond, A., Barnett, W. S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive control. Science, 318(5855), 1387-88.
  8. [8] Duncan, R. M., & Tarulli, D. (2003). Play as the leading activity of the preschool period: Insights from Vygotsky, Leont’ev, and Bakhtin. Early Education and Development 14(3), 271–92
  9. [9] Fantuzzo, J., & McWayne, C. (2002). The relationship between peer-play interactions in the family context and dimensions of school readiness for low-income preschool children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 79-87
  10. [10] Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Berk, L.E., & Singer, D. G. (2009). A mandate for playful learning in preschool: Presenting the evidence. New York: Oxford University Press.
  11. [11]  Zigler, E. F., Singer, D. G., & Bishop-Josef, S. J. (Eds.). (2004). Children’s play: The roots of reading. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.
  12. [12] Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2001). The tools of the mind project: A case study of implementing the Vygotskian approach in American early childhood and primary classrooms. Geneva, Switzerland: International Bureau of Education, UNESCO.
  13. [13] Singer, D., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (Eds.) (2006). Play=Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. New York: Oxford University Press.
  14. [14] Ontario Ministry of Education (2010). The full-day early learning – kindergarten program: Draft version. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/kindergarten_english_june3.pdf
  15. [15] Glauert, E., Heal, C., & Cook, J. (2007). Knowledge and understanding of the world. In J. Riley (Ed.), Learning in the early years (2nd ed.) (pp. 133-166). London: Sage.
  16. [16]  Hartmann W., & Rollett, B. (1994). Play: Positive intervention in the elementary school curriculum. In J. Hellendoorn, R. van der Kooij, & B. Sutton-Smith (Eds.), Play and intervention (pp. 195-202). Albany: State University of New York Press.
  17. [17] Cohen, Cynthia Price. "United Nations: Convention on the rights of the child." International Legal Materials 28.6 (1989): 1448-1476.
  18. [18]  Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (Eds.). (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs (Rev. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
  19. [19] Hartmann W., & Rollett, B. (1994). Play: Positive intervention in the elementary school curriculum. In J. Hellendoorn, R. van der Kooij, & B. Sutton-Smith (Eds.), Play and intervention (pp. 195-202). Albany: State University of New York Press.
  20. [20] Patton, M. M., & Mercer, J. (1996). Hey! Where’s the toys? Play and literacy in 1st grade. Childhood Education, 73(1), 10-13.
  21. [21] Yeom, J. S. (1998). Children’s transition experiences from kindergarten to Grade One. Canadian Children, 23(1), 25-33.
  22. [22] Gill, T., Voce A., Hammond D. and Brussoni M. https://rethinkingchildhood.com/2019/10/23/child-friendly-cities-urban-planning-action/

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