How cities can reimagine public spaces to support children and families

This paper helps explain the process of designing, implementing, and maintaining urban design and placemaking interventions in public spaces to build more child-friendly cities.

Date added 4 October 2021
Last updated 4 October 2021

*This resource is about placemaking. It is not specifically about the High Street, but has been included in response to requests for more studies/information about this topic, as well as linking to experience, recreational space, and innovation priorities for High Street vitality and viability*

This paper is intended to help better explain the process of designing, implementing, and maintaining playful learning programs through public realm installations that encourage the development of critical skills in children and foster better connections between families, especially for those living in under-served neighbourhoods.

It begins by describing Playful Learning Landscapes (PLL)—an initiative that uniquely marries the science of learning with urban design and placemaking to support adult-child interaction and neighbourhood engagement in places where children and families regularly spend time.

Through fun, interactive installations co-created in spaces that families frequent, PLL offers a scalable, sustainable approach for embedding playful learning into the public realm. A core element of PLL involves co-creation with a range of stakeholders including parents and caregivers in the community, along with community leaders and neighbourhood businesses co-designing, developing, maintaining, and in some cases even evaluating PLL installations.

While there is no silver bullet for educational inequity, PLL offers a powerful solution with a wide range of outcomes. Data from pilot PLL installations in US cities including Philadelphia and Chicago shows that PLL promotes the kinds of caregiver-child communication that supports language learning and relationship building, encourages children to talk about numbers, letters, and spatial relations, and increases caregivers’ understanding about the connection between play and learning.

At the same time, PLL engages communities around revitalization of the public realm, creating new opportunities for multigenerational social interaction and making cities themselves more vibrant and liveable.

Following this summary of PLL, the paper then presents key takeaways from 14 interviews with national non-profit organizations and city and community leaders who champion playful approaches to building more child-friendly cities. It outlines five steps places can take to adopt and scale playful learning in their communities. These include:

  • Coordinating within and across city agencies to support the design and integration of playful learning efforts into new and existing programs and projects.
  • Collaborating with national organizations, many of which are already deeply engaged with local philanthropic, civic, and neighbourhood groups to support playful learning.
  • Meaningfully engaging with the community to understand their needs and preferences, foster neighbourhood trust and cohesion, and ensure local buy-in.
  • Sharing information concisely using a variety of venues and formats; and
  • Streamlining and simplifying processes to embed playful learning more seamlessly in urban planning and design decisions.

As places plan for what will be a drawn out and uncertain recovery process, the authors hope this guidance can be used to engage communities around a more expansive vision for how and where learning takes place—and to build stronger, more resilient communities in the decades to come.