Children's conference at Gorky Park

Design Considerations for a Digital Age

Children between nature and technology

In our digital era, children are bombarded with screen time activities. Their love for technology is apparent, and admittedly, what’s not to love? Technology has granted even the youngest of children access to the universe in the palm of their hand, and allows all users a sense of immediate satisfaction. With technology so readily available, it is easy to understand how some children find themselves fixated with being interactive on social media, and less so in person (traditionally, how generations of children before interacted with their friends). Imagine a younger version of yourself—always a helpful design technique, especially when creating playspaces—wasn’t “fitting in with the crowd” of the utmost importance, even if that now means you don’t actually have to see your friends to do so? 

How can a design professional compete with these gadgets when tasked to design a permanent space? Design principles and considerations make up just a portion of creating an effective playspace in today’s age. The psychology of play and engagement is the secret weapon when it comes to pulling players off of their screens and into the physical play world.

What better way to increase user experience and appeal than to actually engage the user? Though not always possible, any opportunity the designer has to interact with the children and families that will be enjoying the future playground will increase the success of the space, and assist the designer in tailoring the play value and site amenities. One way a designer can accomplish this is by holding participatory design sessions. Participatory design invites users to assist during the design process and provide their input, ensuring that their desires are reflected in the finished playsapce. Not only does this benefit the design, it instils a sense of ownership and pride within the users, as they are able to see and enjoy their contributions. 

This is especially valuable for spaces targeted for older children, those who might have a choice between sitting inside and on their phones or meeting friends outside. This group of users, while often overlooked, deserves special attention. Perhaps they are phasing out of the physical play associated with equipment, but still long for the social engagement a playground offers. A designer might pick up on this cue and focus on re-imagining the intended use of the equipment and the space to accommodate these needs. A re-envisioning might include more niche areas (created by topography and selective planting) that instill a sense of privacy and the ability to “hang out”. A traditional piece of play equipment might be re-programmed to allows for multiple users to passively occupy that same space as well. By listening and understanding their changing needs, the designer can react in a thoughtful way, and promote continued engagement in a familiar space.

Another important aspect of a successful playspace that is often overlooked is the consideration of the caregiver. Unless the playspace is truly at the neighborhood scale (and easily accessed by children on foot), adults are often responsible for initiating the play experience by simply getting the child to the playground. In an era where adults understand the appeal of technology, it is easy to assume that some face a harder battle getting their children out of the house. For this reason alone, accommodating the caregiver is crucial, and providing a space that they can enjoy and feel comfortable visiting is key. A designer can respond in many ways from a planning perspective, by providing ample seating (with shade) and strategically placing amenities such as parking, restrooms and refreshment areas with consideration to the location of the play areas. Accommodating the caregiver and improving their experience might lead to longer time spent at the playspace and more repeated visits— ultimately giving the child more opportunities to play. 

Technology will continue to advance, and with those developments, children will continue to “plug-in”. We should, however, never discount their ability and desire to play—children are, of course, the experts. Social engagement and interaction are fundamental to childhood, and designers are well equipped to promote and celebrate these traits in our changing world. As with most successful environments, input from the end user leads to the most engrossing playspaces—and the human connection experienced through play will always surpass the utility a child can derive from a computer screen.


Text: Francine Katz, APE Studio