Differences in Play: How our ideas of play differ with demographics, and how those differences are manifested in design

When you look then, at these two spaces, playgrounds and fitness parks, you will see two drastically different ideas on what 'play' is.

We all recognize the importance of play for children. New York City alone is home to hundreds of children’s playgrounds–adventure and imagination playgrounds, modern designs, interactive sculptures, nature inspired, wood constructions, loose parts, prefab structures, and more.  The city seems to be devoted to designing, building, and renovating new & interesting places for children to play.

But what about all those teenagers and adults?

For some reason children are the only ones allowed to indulge in play, according to society. Teenagers and Adults who attempt to engage in some form of childhood play are dismissed as unproductive, self-indulgent, and immature; and are told to ‘grow up’ and be more responsible.  There must be structure and goals.

And, sadly, the city and society seems to agree by its construction.  Sure, there are hundreds of playgrounds, but how many are adults allowed to use?  And those that ARE designed for adults, what do they say about our expectations when it comes to adult play?

 'Adult' Playgrounds

'Adult' Playgrounds

 'Childrens' Playgrounds

'Childrens' Playgrounds

Let’s take a look at an example that will reflect the city at large–Central Park.  In Central Park there are 21 designated playgrounds (https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/central-park/facilities/playgrounds).  Of those 21, however, a grand total of 0 are allowed to be used by teenagers or adults. Instead, for adults, the park provides basketball and tennis courts, recreation centers, and soccer fields--all highly structured activities either requiring equipment or membership.  The closest thing to a playground that adults receive is a fitness park--just 1--which is a series of pull up bars and sit up stations.

And, when you look then, at these two different spaces for play, you will see two drastically different ideas on what 'play' is.

  • For children, play is imaginative, creative, and open ended. There are no guidelines on how to use the equipment (though most contemporary out-of-the-box systems certainly have movement expectations built in--for another time). There are bright colors, there are large structures, there are moving parts, sand, blocks, water, etc.
  • For adults, it is goal-oriented, structured, and well-established. Each piece is isolated, with instructions and directions.  There is no room really for free thought beyond how many reps am I doing.  Everything is contained, stable. Pull up station, sit up station. Balance here, specifically, but not really anywhere else. 

It is established that adults need play as much as children in order to nourish and support their mental, physical, cognitive, and social health---so why are our spaces so drastically different?