Playscapes as a Design Perspective on Children`s Physical Play

Playscapes as a Design Perspective
on Children’s Physical Play and
Boudewijn Boon
Pieter Jan Stappers
TU Delft, Faculty of Industrial
TU Delft, Faculty of Industrial
Design Engineering
Design Engineering
Childhood cancer can significantly impact children’s
wellbeing and physical development. We will examine
whether stimulating physical play can help children in
both these domains. The design perspective of
‘playscapes’, in particular in a Gibsonian frame, offers
possibilities in pursuing the intended experiential and
clinical outcomes. Questions concerning the design of
playscapes are raised and the potential relevance of
this approach beyond the context of pediatric oncology
and physical development is discussed.
Landbergstraat 15
Landbergstraat 15
2628 CE Delft
2628 CE Delft
The Netherlands
The Netherlands
[email protected]
[email protected]
Marco Rozendaal
TU Delft, Faculty of Industrial
Design Engineering
Landbergstraat 15
2628 CE Delft
The Netherlands
[email protected]
Author Keywords
Spatial interaction; physical activity; child
development; design for healthcare
ACM Classification Keywords
H.5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g.,
HCI): User Interfaces – User-centered design
This paper positions playscapes as a design perspective
on children’s physical play and wellbeing. It does so in
the context of pediatric oncology but its relevance
extends to pediatric care and children’s play in general.
We frame our perspective guided by the concept of
‘Development-Oriented Care’ (DOC) as developed in
collaboration with the Princess Máxima Center for
Pediatric Oncology in the Netherlands. This integrative
form of care concentrates on children with cancer and
their families as a whole, aiming to foster the normal
development of children, in spite of their lifethreatening illness and the invasive treatment they
have to undergo. Central to DOC is that a holistic
perspective is taken on wellbeing and development:
cognitive, emotional, social, spiritual and physical
aspects are all taken into account.
Childhood cancer significantly impacts the child and
family’s way of life. Life is no longer safe, secure and
certain as routines, roles and relationships get
disrupted. Furthermore, the course of life of survivors is
often hampered. Children and their families thus face
challenges in the present as well as in the future.
Accordingly, wellbeing is here viewed as life as it is
experienced in the present (i.e. wellbeing) and as it
develops toward adulthood (i.e. wellbecoming), as
described by Ben-Arieh et al. [4].
Physical Development and Physical Play
In this research we address wellbecoming mainly in
terms of physical development, as it is a developmental
domain that can be significantly impacted by childhood
cancer [3]. Physical development is a process of
continuous change in the human body covering our
entire lifespan. The most notable changes during
childhood (0 to 18 years old) occur in body length and
weight. Next to the anatomical level, we can further
distinguish changes in physical fitness and motor skills,
both of which progress significantly during childhood.
Current ways of addressing the physical development
of children with cancer generally involve exercise
interventions provided by physiotherapists [e.g. 3]. As
we aim to address both physical development and
wellbeing of children with cancer, a more holistic
approach is required. We suggest that a focus on ‘play’
is an interesting way forward, because, next to its role
in child development, it also conduces to the child’s
experiential wellbeing.
Play is an intrinsically motivated activity, having no
purpose apart from itself. In Csikszentmihalyi’s words:
play is autotelic and it is characterized, like other ‘flow
experiences’, by the complete absorption of a person in
the present moment [7]. Furthermore, play plays a
significant role in child development [6]; i.e. it can
have beneficial consequences across a person’s lifespan
[8]. Dealing specifically with the physical development
of children, certain play forms are of particular interest
to us. We describe these as falling under the umbrella
of physical play. Examples of physical play are exercise
play and rough-and-tumble play [8], but also
manipulative play (sometimes called ‘object play’),
which plays a role in motor development [6]. Based
upon the above we hypothesize that physical play can
play a significant role in conducing to the wellbeing and
physical development of children with cancer.
Related work on physical play in the field of humancomputer interaction mainly responds to the problem of
obesity. From findings in literature on design for
physical play, we distinguish between three interaction
paradigms: screen-based, tangible, and spatial
interaction. In screen-based interaction, interaction is
centered on graphical user interfaces (e.g. fixed
desktop, mobile phone), sometimes making use of a
controller and game station (e.g. Nintendo Wii).
‘Exergames’ [11] often fall within this category. These
are games that require a certain level of exertion by
the player. Tangible interaction is centered on tangible
user interfaces where digital information and physical
objects are coupled. Examples within this category are
enhanced traditional games [12], enhanced sports
activities [2], and open-ended play objects [1]. Finally,
spatial interaction is interaction with or in an
environment. Examples in this category are interactive
playgrounds [10] and ambient intelligent games [14].
Next we present ‘playscapes’ as a design perspective
on children’s physical play, covering both spatial and
tangible interaction.
Playscapes as a Design Perspective
In 1992, Frost coined the term ‘playscapes’, using it for
describing different play environments [5]. Key to our
conception of playscapes is that they are such relative
to the actor perceiving it, in this case, the child. Thus,
playscapes hint at a Gibsonian view of affordances on
play. The child directly perceives the possibilities for
action in the playscape. To illustrate, a child might see
a couch as a possibility for play (e.g. using it as a
trampoline) whereas an adult is more likely to perceive
it as a possibility to sit down and relax. On a spatial
level, a natural environment can offer children many
possibilities for play and hence be engaged with as a
‘natural playscape’ [5].
It is suggested here that the perspective of playscapes,
as we conceive it, can account for multiple qualities.
First, it allows taking into account the spatial quality of
play beyond the boundaries of a dedicated play area;
more dispersed playscapes can be imagined, for
example, throughout a hospital building. This is distinct
from other approaches to spatial interaction [e.g. 10,
14]. Second, a playscape is a landscape to move
through, making it particularly useful for stimulating
physical play. Exploring and playing in a playscape
implies physical activity, the use of gross motor skills,
and the use of perceptual motor skills such as spatial
and directional awareness. Illustrative are natural
playscapes, which have been shown to promote
physical activity and motor skills [5]. Third, a playscape
can offer a high degree of open-endedness, not only in
the separate elements but also in their composition.
This allows for a wide diversity of play narratives for
children to perform throughout the playscape. This
dynamism can lead to sustained engagement by the
children. Their personal appropriation of the
environment can lead to a sense of ownership. Finally,
a playscape, or a particular part of it, can offer a sense
of ‘placeness’, described by Talbot and Frost as “a
degree of containment that serves to separate off the
rest of the world” [13:229]. A simple rug with some
objects on it can already create this effect for younger
children; when they grow older self-constructed places,
such as tree and bush houses, might serve a similar
purpose. Although a sense of placeness does not
directly contribute to physical play, it can help a child
grow attached to a playscape potentially resulting in
sustained engagement with it.
Particular to our approach to playscapes is the intention
underlying the design. In this research the intention is
reflected in the goal of stimulating physical play and
the underlying aim to promote children’s wellbeing and
physical development. We imagine that playscapes can
foster other domains of development as well (e.g.
social and emotional development by promoting social
interaction), and that future research might result in
interesting synergies. Figure 1 illustrates the intention
that designers might have and the playscape in which
the behavior and experience is intended to emerge.
direction for designing for children’s physical play, and ii)
whether the elicited physical play fosters wellbeing and
physical development.
Designer’s intent
(emergence of behavior,
experience, motivation)
(People, things, space, time)
Figure 1. A playscape designed for certain intended outcomes
to emerge out of the interactions between multiple actors and
objects through space and time (adapted from [9]).
In the context of pediatric oncology and DOC, the
clinical setting demands that physiotherapists and other
specialists inform the designer’s intent. As Figure 1
suggests, however, designing a playscape and
achieving the intended outcome is not a controllable
process. The interaction between multiple actors and
objects within a playscape results in a complexity that
makes it hard to predict particular behavioral
outcomes; rather behavioral and experiential patterns
emerge from multiple interactions.
Playscapes and childhood cancer
Our design goal is to develop interventions in the hospital
environment that stimulate physical play and, as a result,
conduce to the wellbeing and physical development of
children with cancer. Our research goals are i) examining
whether playscapes as a design perspective is a fruitful
Knowledge required for the design goal, considering
playscapes in a Gibsonian frame, entails information about
the environment, the actors and their functional
relationship, i.e. the affordances. In the environment,
what space is available for a playscape? What elements
are already present? Specific to the hospital context, what
standards of hygiene apply? Among the actors we can
distinguish between children with cancer and others
potentially moving through the playscape. What are the
children’s particular needs and wishes? What are their
mental and physical abilities? Which other actors might be
present? Will the presence of doctors or therapists disrupt
the play experience? And which role can or should the
child’s family play?
Answering these questions contributes to the design and
building of playscapes that conduce to the wellbeing and
physical development of children with cancer. We envision
that such playscapes can enhance child physiotherapy and
revalidation by integrating exercises more into the daily
lives of hospitalized children through physical play. The
value and applicability of playscapes as a design
perspective might extend well beyond the hospital
environment, providing new ways of looking at, for
example, schoolyards or urban environments.
Furthermore, by taking into account other domains of
development and types of play, playscapes can potentially
offer a holistic approach to children’s development and
The work presented in this paper is part of the project
"Meedoen=Groeien!". This research is a collaboration
among the Dutch Rehabilitation Fund, the Princess
Máxima Center of Pediatric Oncology, and Delft
University of Technology. The Dutch Friends Lottery
finances this project.
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