to play

A Government committee is seeking evidence on how children experience the places where they live and how their needs are being met by the planning system. About time, argues LDA Design’s Jemma Hall. 

Cars have been allowed to dominate our towns and cities, reducing independent mobility. Eighty six percent of children walked or cycled to school fifty years ago, compared to 25 percent in 2022.

When it comes to designing places, do we care more about bats than children? If you looked at the National Planning Policy Framework you might come to that conclusion. Protected species like bats are referenced twice, once more than children.

And yet, the tides might finally be turning in how we create places with children and young adults in mind. Let’s hope so because there’s a lot at stake. England has an urgent obesity problem. Loneliness is as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Mental health and wellbeing are of major concern. Many of these issues stem from childhood.

The ways in which cars have been allowed dominate our towns and cities impact everyone, but for children and young people traffic danger has dramatically reduced independent mobility. Eighty six percent of children walked or cycled to school 50 years ago, compared to 25 percent in 2022. The figures for playing out in the street are just as grim.

Freedom to play is currently the focus of a Government inquiry, examining how planning and urban design in England should be changed to improve life for children and young people. In giving evidence to the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Select Committee, public health experts, freedom-to-play advocates and campaigners have argued that while children and young adults want and need to get out and about, there are barriers preventing this. They are also not consulted about changes to their neighbourhoods which directly affect their lives.

Compelling written evidence has been submitted, which LDA Design has supported via parks and green spaces advocates, Fields in Trust. This evidence linked safe and green neighbourhoods with children being more active, and massively improved early life development as well as better health.

There are serious inequalities in the provision and quality of local green space. A report on left-behind neighbourhoods shows that they are designed with less green space and social infrastructure. Children in lower income areas have far lower rates of activity.

Left-behind neighbourhoods are designed with less green space and social infrastructure.

Sport England report that in 2022-23, 53 percent of children were not meeting recommended guidelines of at least 60 minutes of sport and physical activity a day. Research from Make Space for Girls has found that in the default design of parks and public space, the nature and siting of play equipment for older children and teenagers is for boys and young men. This leads to girls using parks less, with some case studies showing that boys are twice as likely to play outside than girls.

Fields in Trust also drew on LDA Design experience in Aberfeldy Village in east London with its ambition to become a UNICEF Child Friendly Neighbourhood. There, engagement with young people was at the heart of the masterplan for regeneration and strongly influenced LDA Design’s plans for the public realm design. Architect and researcher, Dinah Bornat, author of the toolkit Voice, Opportunity Power will be giving evidence before the Committee at the next evidence session later this month. Bornat will be joined by Jo McCafferty of Levitt Bernstein, architects on the masterplan for Aberfeldy, and play expert Tim Gill.

Play needs defining. If it is what children and young people do when no one is telling them what to do, then it’s about learning to live well.

Children and young people’s needs are often wrapped up under the heading of play, so it needs defining. If it is what children and young people do when no one is telling them what to do, then it is about learning to live well. It is about adventure, imagination and everyday freedoms. At least that helps to put the seesaw in a railed-off area into perspective.

Two dozen experts in health, housing, play and planning are calling on the Government to take a coordinated, cross-departmental approach to deliver a built environment suitable for children, arguing their needs have been ignored for too long. There is no national guidance on child-friendly design for example, and the vast majority of Supplementary planning documents also fail to provide guidance. They are calling for policy changes such as a 20mph default speed limit where children live, learn and play. Currently those in the most deprived 20 percent of areas are six times more likely to be injured by a car than those in the least deprived 20 percent.

In places, attention is already being paid. The London Plan for example outlines a range of principles and policies for development proposals which ensure appropriate infrastructure and networks of spaces for children. Educational and childcare facilities must link to existing footpaths and cycleways and new housing provide children and young people with safe and ready access to formal play provision, green spaces and parks. It sets a specific amount of play space of 10 sqm per child. Play sufficiency assessments are also being embedded into the planning process in Wales and Scotland.

Aberdeen City Council wants to become a UNICEF Child Friendly City, and LDA Design was commissioned to help with a new vision for the city centre. Primary school children were asked to identify places for incidental play and they consistently wanted more greenery, colour, art and music; opportunities for free play, sitting and shelter; cleaner streets and buildings.


Adventure play areas in Burgess Park, Southwark. Key moves by LDA Design to transform this important urban green space included creating inviting new entrances, new paths through and clear sightlines. It has resulted in the park having wide appeal.

Research into the value of working with children and young people as capable experts and active collaborators continues to grow. They make up 20 percent of the population and have a deep understanding of their places, and can help draw out the most appropriate and creative design solutions for new buildings and landscape. Involving and consulting them means that their surroundings can be tailored to meet their needs. In the process, they can help with securing inclusive, varied and safe neighbourhoods for everyone.

Bats are important, of course. As are ecosystems. But children are too. The next LUHC Committee meeting is scheduled for later this month. We’re calling for change that’s long overdue. Let’s hope the Government is listening.

* Air pollution and noncommunicable diseases, CHEST Journal 

Obesity statistics Jan 2023

Useful organisations: 
Fields in Trust 
Make Space for Girls 
Street Games

Header: Helena Smith for LDA Design 
St Mary’s School, E17 credit Roger Parkes / Alamy Stock Photo
2-4: Allan Mas, Heye Jensen, Jules A – Unsplash 
Aberfeldy engagement images credit Thomas Graham 
Burgess Park – Helena Smith for LDA Design and  Cannon Ivers/LDADesign

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