18 October 2018

Designing for children could be key to creating inclusive, accessible and successful places, writes Helen Forman, Senior Design Officer at Leeds City Council and Board Member, Connect Housing.

When my children were very young, often we would walk together to the local playground.


Before we had left the gate, they would jump on and off the front step and play at avoiding the cracks in our front path. They would swing on the gate for a while. Outside the gate, they might pick up a stick and poke at holes in the pavement. We would cross the road and they would walk along my neighbour’s low wall, holding my hand. They would run the stick all along the school railings.

Sometimes it might take an hour to get to the playground, five minutes’ walk away.

As they grew up, the pace was a little less slow, but still punctuated by discoveries. We would finally arrive at the playground, where they would play on the equipment for just a few minutes before disappearing into the bushes and trees around the edge.

Now my children are old enough to go out on their own, the destination is a motivator, but the journey is still more important. Walking along with their friends, chatting and stopping by the conker tree or at the shop, gives them a sense of independence and purpose. I wish that they had been allowed this freedom from a much earlier age, as I had.

Street play and children’s independent mobility has declined dramatically over the last 50 years, with traffic being the biggest factor. Meanwhile, physical inactivity and poor fitness in childhood is growing. These are terribly damaging trends that must not be allowed to continue, and which can be countered by more thoughtful housing layout design.

Can you see through the eyes of a child?

I challenge all those involved in designing and building new neighbourhoods to see them through the eyes of a child.

Helen Forman
Senior Design Officer, Leeds City Council

My literature review for Playing Out set out to understand how new residential developments can facilitate children’s outdoor activity and enable them to benefit from the increased health, freedom and confidence that it offers.

I found that housing layouts impact significantly on children’s freedom to roam and play in their neighbourhoods. Those that are permeable to pedestrians but not vehicles allow children to move around more safely.

Layouts with a wide variety of child destinations or ‘things to do’ are more likely to have children of different ages and social groups playing out alongside each other.

A space right outside the home that isn’t dominated by traffic enables them to enjoy the ‘doorstep play’ that takes up most of the time they spend outdoors.

Designing for children has advantages for everyone. Observational studies show that adult behaviour outdoors mirrors that of children. Home Zones, where outdoor spaces are designed to prioritise pedestrians and social contact, can increase house values.

Arup’s recent Cities Alive report on child-friendly urban planning found that children’s ability to roam and play independently is a strong indicator of a city’s value for all ages.

This does not mean that we need playgrounds on every street corner; evidence reflects my own experience that these form only part of the ‘play landscape’.

Destinations can be as simple as a tree, a set of steps, or a bench. If they can be reached safely and easily on foot or by bike, they will form part of a familiar loop where children will seek each other out and generate their own fun.

I challenge all those involved in designing and building new neighbourhoods to see them through the eyes of a child. To talk to local communities about how children use the spaces and streets. To enlist the help of play experts, chief among whom, of course, are children themselves.

If we can do this, we will start to build housing developments that have a human scale and that make walking and socialising a natural choice.

If we can see through the eyes of children, we will reap the rewards as adults, communities and citizens of happier, healthier places.

Helen Forman

Helen Forman is Senior Design Officer at Leeds City Council and a Board Member of Connect Housing.

Helen Forman spoke to the Great Places Commission about the need to design places around children during their visit to Dewsbury and Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire.

Can you see through the eyes of a child?