Designing a Play Environment with Children at Sahab

Prepared by Diana Omet with Mohammad al-Asad
Published in 2002



This paper deals with the experience that architect Diana Omet (1) carried out for designing a play environment for and with a group of children from the Sahab area of Amman. The design of the play environment has been completed, and its implementation will be initiated once the necessary funding is secured.

Sahab is a limited-income community that is located about 7 kilometers east of Amman. It is best known for its large industrial complex, and many of its inhabitants are employed in the factories of that complex. The children of Sahab have no places that are dedicated to play, and a good number of them therefore end up having to play in the streets, vacant lands, or in schoolyards during school hours. Some of the children living in Sahab participate in the activities of a children's club connected to the Princess Basma Center (PBC) in Sahab. (2) The club holds activities for the children about once a week. (3)

The Near East Foundation (NEF) in Jordan has initiated a project in Sahab aimed at building an Environmental Action Network, which is intended to set a model of environmental stewardship through working with children, and to provide them with a degree of environmental education. (4) One of the measures that NEF has taken to achieve this goal has been to initiate a project aimed at developing the 4500 square-meter backyard of PBC as a play environment. All involved in the project share the belief that children should have a role in designing, building, and maintaining their play environment, so as to allow them to feel a sense of pride and develop a sense of responsibility and belonging towards that play environment.

Working with the children at the PBC children’s club in Sahab has provided me with an excellent opportunity to examine and implement some of the ideas I explored in my master's thesis on children's play environments. (5) In working on the Sahab play environment, I concentrated on developing a participatory process for the children that encouraged them to make choices, take decisions, set a design program, and suggest a preliminary design layout. This was achieved through a series of meetings that I carried out with the children, and each meeting aimed at achieving a certain goal.

The sequence I followed with the children seemed to work well. The children raised questions during the meetings that carried us logically and smoothly from one step to another. Moreover, new participants could easily follow the topics of the meeting since I provided at the beginning of each new meeting a brief of the previous meeting. Working with the children in such a sequence also helped in building communication, trust, and respect among all of us. Of course, throughout the process, the thoughts and opinions of the children were acknowledged and appreciated. They were given the chance to explore the options for their play environment and to think critically about these options in order to make decisions. This was done through raising questions about the particular topic of each meeting to provoke the children into thinking critically and analytically about the topic. The meetings proved to be an enjoyable experience for all involved.

  Phase I:

 Meeting with the children:

The first of the six meetings with the children that took place during the first phase of the project was devoted to exploring children’s images and views concerning play and play environments. The children involved in this project – as with other children – engage in many types of play. It was necessary to introduce them to the terms describing these types of play, which include active play, exploratory play, imitative play, constructive play, make-believe play, games with rules, and sophisticated recreations. (6) The term “play environment” also was introduced and I explained that it includes physical elements in the play space, both natural (sand, soil, water, greenery,…) and manmade (play tools, play structures, walls, buildings, walkways, canopies,…). I emphasized that the term "play environment" extends to include the physical features in and around the play space such as the site, its topography and microclimate, as well as the urban fabric surrounding it. All the mentioned elements affect the type, quality, and diversity of the play in which the child can get involved.

Children were then asked to express in drawings the play environment they would like to have. Each participant was asked to prepare two sets of drawings: one during the meeting and another at home. The first meeting concluded by showing the children some slides about different types of play in which children in different parts of the world engage.

The analysis of the children’s drawings was planned for later. This analysis aimed at pinpointing the games they like to play, the play tools and equipment they like to play with, and the type of play environment they like to have.

A visit to the backyard of PBC, where the play environment is to be located, took place during the second meeting (figure 1). The children were asked to examine critically and analytically the site with its existing elements and surrounding environment. The children then prepared a map of the site that showed existing entrances, boundaries, topography, vegetation, an existing outdoor play area, sewage pipes, and a septic tank. The map also showed the surrounding buildings and adjacent street (figure 2).

Figure 1: Initial visit to the site

Figure 2: Site analysis that the children carried out.

The microclimate of the plot was discussed. The children identified the north direction, according to the direction of the Muslim prayers, which faces the city of Mecca. They also identified the direction of the cold winter winds, which come from the west and southwest, and which they felt should be blocked in the winter. The map also located the garbage that some of the neighbors had been throwing into the site. The children discussed possible measures to prevent such littering. These include holding meetings with the neighbors, providing garbage receptacles, and building a fence between the neighbors and the site using a kind of wire mesh. Measures such as complaining to the authorities about the neighbors were discussed, but dropped in order to keep good relations with the neighbors.

During the third meeting, the drawings that the children had prepared during the first meeting were displayed on a wall (figure 3). Every child was asked to hang his or her two drawings (the one done during the meeting and the one done at home). As the drawings were being hung on the wall, the children prepared tables that included the name and age of the child who prepared the drawing, the elements that appear in each drawing, and the number of times each element appeared in the different drawings. Ball games such as football, volleyball, and basketball had the highest occurrence (11 times). Traditional playground equipment such as the seesaw, slide, swing, and revolving platform occurred 9 times. Old stationary vehicles including cars, buses, and trucks occurred 5 times, and a playhouse appeared 4 times. Water activities such as swimming, diving, and water handball occurred 3 times. Fishing, table tennis, and jumping over vertical poles each occurred twice. Horseback riding, farming, tae kwon do, wrestling, chess, and wheelchair racing each occurred once. Pretend play, such as the doctor and patient game, and constructive play, such as art work and model making, were mentioned in writing in one of the sheets since the child who mentioned them was unable to express such types of play in drawing form. Another child represented constructive play in a drawing in the form of farming activities. Natural features (trees, flowers, birds, a mountain, hill, water pool, and grass) occurred 13 times. Five of the drawings expressed different topics that did not fit within the context of a play environment. These included drawings of a person eating a fish, the Palestinian intifada, a spaceship, fruits on a table, and a free composition entitled “Jordan: history and civilization.”

Figure 3: Samples of the drawings that the children prepared to express their conception of a play environment.

The next step was to categorize the types of play that the activities shown in the children’s drawings represented. For this purpose the children prepared another table. This table showed 19 different activities. 14 were active play activities, including running, jumping, swinging, sliding, games that cause dizziness, and swimming. 9 activities were games with rules or “competition play,” although some of them also can be considered examples of active play. Pretend play appeared twice, in the representation of the playhouse and the old stationary vehicles (truck, car, or bus). Constructive play was represented by the farming activity, and was mentioned in writing as model making and art work. Mental play appeared once as a chess game. Four of the activities represented could only be conducted with a partner (table tennis, seesaw, wrestling, and chess). The remaining 15 activities could be categorized under single or group play.

Since natural settings appeared 13 times in the children’s drawings, the merits of creating a play environment that provided such a setting were discussed. The children mentioned that birds, water, and the moving branches of trees and leaves would add a welcomed dimension to the play environment since they provide movement and attractive sounds. The children also stated that playing in a natural setting is relaxing and brings joy to those involved. They added that trees provide shaded areas, and flowers provide color and fragrance.

In the fourth meeting, the table of types of activities and the map of the plot were displayed before the children. The table showed a wide variety in the activities that the children suggested, but the map indicated that there was not enough space in the site to accommodate all of them. Consequently, the children were asked to make choices, define priorities, and then make decisions about the activities that they would want to include in the play environment. In order to do so, each activity was discussed through questions that raised issues that the children needed to address.

The children agreed that all ball games could be performed in one playground. The question was raised as to whether it would be possible to construct the playground. Few children said it would not be possible while others assured that it would be possible. Each group was asked to explain the reasons that led them to their conclusion. The children who believed it would not be possible to construct the playground raised a number of valid concerns. These included the fact that olive trees are planted throughout the site, that the windows of the center might break as a result of impact with balls, and that the dirt ground with its little stones is not suitable for most ball games. They also mentioned the lack of shaded areas. Some children wrote these obstacles on a sheet of paper for all to see. Every obstacle was discussed to see if it could be overcome. Consequently, the children suggested removing the trees from the plot. Some suggested inquiring if the trees could be transplanted to other locations. They also suggested surrounding the playground with a high wire mesh to prevent possible damage to nearby windows and to keep the balls inside the playground. Some suggested changing the existing ground surface into one that is more suitable for ball games. The children discussed different ground covers such as grass, sand, and asphalt. They felt that grass is the best for safety reasons but is a very expensive option, which needs considerable maintenance and constant watering. They also believed that sand is a cheep and safe surface but not good for all ball games. They also were aware that an asphalt cover would be suitable for all ball games and cheaper than grass, but that players might sometimes get hurt when falling on it. After discussing the positive and negative aspects for each ground cover, they decided that asphalt would be the most appropriate choice.

Some children were concerned that young men in the community might end up dominating the playground and that they would not allow the children to use it. Some suggested dividing the playground into two sections, and others suggested setting certain days for each group. Most of the children favored a time schedule according to which young men would use the playground only at late hours in the day, after the children go home. The children documented the discussion on a big sheet of paper.

The discussion about the swimming pool was as interesting as the one that took place regarding the playground. In discussing the possibility of building a swimming pool in the site, the children showed an awareness of the steps required for constructing one. They explained that the first step would be to dig a big hole in the ground. This would be followed by building walls that define the borders of the pool, and these should be covered with special tiling. They also were aware that providing the pool with water would be expensive and problematic because of the scarcity of water in Jordan. They added that the pool water would need to be regularly treated through using a filtration system and adding chlorine.

Although water activities appeared only three times in the children’s drawings, when asked to vote for a swimming pool or a playground, the results were 13 to 14. Since the vote was very close, with the playground receiving only one vote more than the swimming pool, the next step was to discuss the positive and negative issues for each choice. The children mentioned that a playground would be used throughout the year, and would accommodate a wide variety of activities that include ball games. They also mentioned that a playground is cheaper to construct and maintain, that using a playground doesn’t need any special clothing or training, and that its use could be offered for free. In addition, boys and girls can play at the same time, and one would not have to worry about the risk of drowning.

As for the swimming pool, the children mentioned that using it throughout the year would require complex and expensive solutions, and participating in water activities would require special clothes and training. In addition, lifeguards would need to be hired. All this means that it would not be possible to offer the use of the pool for free. The children also raised the risks of drowning and the spread of contagious diseases. Following the discussion, the children decided unanimously in favor of the playground. The children also mentioned that there is a swimming pool in Sahab that is open to the public for a fee, and some of them occasionally use it in the summer.

A discussion of other activities continued in the fifth meeting. Playing with swings, slides, seesaws, and revolving platforms were suggested as possible activities for the site. Some of the equipment for these activities already can be found in the existing kindergarten playing lot near the PBC building, against the school's eastern wall, but they are broken and not safe for use. The equipment was discussed in terms of materials, shape, and motion. Children favored rubber seats or tires for swings, and wooden floors for revolving platforms in order to maximize safety precautions. They also suggested using small plastic seats with belts for toddlers to protect babies from falling. They added that seesaw seats should be provided with back support. The children also were aware that smaller children (ones they defined as less than 6 years old) should have smaller playing equipment to suit their size.

The children also discussed the possibility of constructing a playhouse in their play environment, and talked about issues including its size, shape, and materials. Some suggested that it be in the shape of a small room with a garden, and that it could be made to resemble a real house. Others suggested that it resemble a castle, a tent, or a dome. They thought of different materials for the playhouse: tree branches (19 occurrences), textiles (15 occurrences), brick (13 occurrences) wood (11 occurrences), plastic (2 occurrences), and cardboard (1 occurrence). The children added that the playhouse primarily would be for pretend play, and that different age groups could play together in it.

The children also suggested that blocks of different shapes and colors would be included for constructive play, and placed in the free-play zone and the play area reserved for smaller children. Other suggestions included repainting an old car or a truck for role play and incorporating a large-scale chessboard with specially checkered tiling and big stones.

The last meeting of the first phase of the project started with a summary of the previous meetings to help the children connect together the various steps of the process in which they have been engaged. The site analysis that the children carried out and the activities that the children suggested were displayed, in addition to a large map (scale 1:100) of the site (figure 4). The children were encouraged to think critically in dealing with the results of the site analysis, and in making decisions about suggested spaces and features and their location. This was possible through examining different options for various types of play, and raising questions such as "why" and "where" for each of them. To begin with, they defined the expected users of the play environment. These primarily consisted of children of different age groups: six years of age and below - and whom an adult would accompany, six to fourteen years of age, and those above fourteen years of age (youth) (figure 5). It was expected that other members of the community who use the center, such as women and teachers, also would benefit from the play environment. Since this play environment would be the only one in the Sahab area, the children believed it might become an important attraction point for the Sahab community.

Figure 4: Map of the site.

Figure 5: An initial zoning of activities that the children prepared for the site.

The children reviewed the issue of access to the site. They mentioned that people wishing to come to it might use public transportation, private cars, or bicycles, and might also come on foot. They felt that the main visitors’ entrance should be along the low-traffic back street in order to maintain a level of privacy for the PBC building. They also suggested that some space be reserved for car parking. They added that it also would be possible to enter the site through the multipurpose hall or through the entrance located near the side of the PBC building. In addition, they suggested creating direct access between the site and the adjacent school. In fact, they explored opportunities for interaction with the school such as using the play environment during the morning school break and carrying out school activities in the site such as gardening.

The children believed that those below six years of age should have their own space. The question was where to locate that space. One suggested having it near the right side of the PBC building. This would make it close to the PBC nursery area. However, the area also has a septic tank, and the children therefore abandoned that option. Instead, they suggested having it occupy the existing location for the kindergarten play area.

The children also examined options for the location of the playground. One suggestion was having it near the PBC building. However, this suggestion was abandoned since the noise coming out of the playground would disturb those using the building. Instead, they agreed that a more appropriate location would be somewhere near the main entrance and the parking lot, away from the center and toddlers’ zone. They also suggested having a special play zone for those between 10 and 14 years of age, which they referred to as the adventure-play zone. Some suggested that this zone would include an old car that would be redecorated for the purposes of pretend play, as mentioned earlier. Others suggested having the car in a separate zone near the space chosen for the playhouse. The children wanted both play areas to be accessible for younger and older children to allow and encourage different age groups to play together.

The children also suggested placing an outdoor theater near the PBC building. This would be accessible from the school in case the teachers and students were interested in using it.

In order to block the unpleasant cold winds in winter, the children suggested planting a row of tall evergreen trees such as Aleppo Pine and cypresses along the western edge of the plot. They felt that the green buffer also would reduce noise level coming from the playground and would provide the adjacent neighbors with some privacy. They also suggested replanting the olive trees that currently are scattered throughout the plot in one location in the site.

 Phase II:

The first stage of the design process consisted of developing, in association with the children of the area, a design program for the play environment that accommodated the children's various physical, social, and psychological needs. The program also worked on incorporating the needs of other expected users of the play environment such as the students and teachers of the adjacent school, parents and older companions of children, as well as the various users of PBC, who include women, children, and youth.

We also set a preliminary zoning plan for the activities that the children decided to include in the play environment. Such zoning took into consideration the physical characteristics of the site and its surroundings. The children also emphasized that different spaces should be devoted to different age groups, and that special consideration should be given to children under six years of age.

In the final result, the zoning that the children developed included an area for a multi-use playground that is located near the back street entrance of the site. It also included an area for children under six years of age, which is located close to the PBC center building, near the preexisting nursery. A third area, which is to be devoted to children around ten years and above, would function as an adventure play area and would be located near the border with the adjacent school.

The children believed that the students of the adjacent school should be able to use the play environment, and that they should be encouraged to participate in its design, management, and maintenance. The outdoor theater for musical and drama performances as well as other freeform play activities was proposed partly to encourage the students and staff of the school to become more involved in the play environment.

A free play zone was devoted to pretend play, and this space would include the redecorated old truck or bus. The children also suggested that this space would include old boxes, tires, bricks, shovels, wooden boards, and barrels. These materials would give the children the opportunity to manipulate the space, and would stimulate their imagination in creating their own games and play tools.

In addition, the play environment is to include a playhouse. Many of the children wanted the playhouse to be in the form of the tent. The tent is a common structure for Bedouins in Jordan, and is used for social gatherings in villages as well as in urban areas.

 Design concept:

The second phase of the project concentrated on developing a design for the play environment. As mentioned earlier, a great number of the children’s drawings showed the play environment as one located in a green natural setting, thus reflecting the need for greenery in the dry climate of Jordan, and particularly that of Sahab. In developing the design concept for the play environment, I therefore placed various activities in the middle of the site, and surrounded them by what can be referred to as a greenbelt, most of which would consist of evergreen plants. This belt also would function as a windbreak from the west and southwest, and also as a sound barrier between the site and the adjacent houses to the southwest and to the northwest (figure 6).

Figure 6: Proposed site plan developed for the play environment.

The site is almost flat. However, I created an artificial, triangularly shaped 3-meter high hill located immediately at the front of the main entrance. This hill serves to break the flatness of the site, and also to direct circulation to the various functions that the site contains. In addition, it would block views from the entry area towards the various activities, thus providing visitors with a sense of surprise and ambiguity as they move towards the core area of the site. The hill will be planted with evergreen ground covers, and will function as a landmark for the site from a distance. The children would be able to climb up the hill, and ropes and a ladder would be provided for that purpose.

The floor area from which the children would be able to climb the rope will be covered with a rubber-like surface. A covered wooden watch deck will be located at the top of the hill to give the children choices and flexibility in vertical movement and to provide them with the experience of looking at the site from above. The observation deck also will be connected to other parts of the site through a bridge. An adventure play area, which is intended for children ten years and above, will be connected to the hill and to the free play zone through two bridges. These bridges will be covered in some areas with bamboo or dry reeds. This will allow the air to penetrate through them so that the children walking on the bridge would enjoy a cool breeze in the summer and also hear the wind whistle through the reeds. Pockets of light would be created through openings in the walls of the bridge (figure 7).

Figure 7: Elevation drawings of the bridge connecting the adventure and free play areas, and the bridge connecting the artificial hill and the adventure area.

The two pathways that start from the main entrance and continue surrounding the triangular hill meet at a gateway, which opens to the outdoor theater located at the center of a horizontal axis connecting the adjacent school to the play environment. The theater is sunk into the ground by about one meter. It is provided with a ramp to allow children on wheelchairs to participate in the activities taking place there. The theater will be covered with reeds supported by a light structure to provide shade and allow for cool breezes to pass through in the summer. An open plaza with shaded seating areas is located near the theater, close to the center. Children can use this plaza to practice traditional games that require a hard surface, such as seven stones and jumping rope. Also, the ladies who frequent the center can use the plaza for their activities, which include hand sewing, outdoor meetings and lectures, and exhibitions. Another shaded seating areas is located near the free play zone, overlooking the activities in the core. This allows parents or other children’s companions to watch over the children in a relaxing atmosphere.

Walls also are incorporated as a play feature and as a stimulating element that includes a mix of shapes, materials, textures, colors, and sounds. The sounds would result from arranging pipes of different sizes and lengths along some parts of the wall in a manner that allows the children to strike the pipes with appropriate tools to create musical sounds. In some areas, the walls would visually block certain activities, thus adding ambiguity and curiosity to the play experience. A wall in the free play area is designed in a manner that allows it to be used in different ways. Children between the ages of seven and ten would be able to climb up the wall, walk above it, go through it, and even jump over it. Such a wall also would help stimulate the children’s imagination for purposes of pretend play (figure 8).

Figure 8: Elevation drawing of the wall in the free play area that is intended as a play element.

The existing walls surrounding the plot will be left as they are, except for some maintenance and repair where needed. The wall at the back facing the back street will be covered with stones, and will be further emphasized by a row of evergreen trees that will be planted along it. These also will give shade to the seating areas located at the south side of the playground.

Considerable attention is given in the design to expose the children to as wide a range of stimuli as possible. This will help them become well acquainted with their environment, and to develop a better sense of place. The basic colors of red, blue, and yellow will be used mainly for the play structures. Natural elements including plants, sand, and stone also will serve to provide visual variety. Special care is taken to incorporate plants with differing flowering seasons, shades of green, fragrances, and colors. An emphasis has been placed on manipulating changes in views, contrasts between light and shade, and changes between wind velocities, sounds, and textures throughout the design.

The design also allows children to exercise a certain level of control over their play environment. Movable play elements and tools, such as wooden boards, ladders, barrels, boxes, and shovels, will be provided in the free play zone. These elements will enable the children both to manipulate the space and to create their own games and play structures. The children also will be allowed and encouraged to bring their own materials to play with as long as safety precautions are taken into consideration. The ground surface in the free play zone will consist of a clean thick layer of sand. They can dig through it and make shapes out of it, and it is also a safe material for playing. In addition, they can use sand to play some traditional games like marbles.

 The Softscape:

Due to the scarcity of water in Jordan, special care has been taken in selecting plants species for the play environment (figure 9). Low water consuming plants will be used. The trees suggested for the southern and southwestern sides of the site include cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens and Cupressus glabra), Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis), mimosa (Acacia cyanophylla), and glossy privet (Ligustrum lucidum). These would provide shade for the seating areas around the playground, would function as noise and wind barriers, and would provide privacy to the adjacent neighbors. Deciduous trees such as the Japanese pagoda tree (Sophora japonica) and the silk tree (Albizia julibrissin) are suggested for the eastern side of the plot. This will give the children a sense of the changing seasons and will allow the sun to warm up the area in winter. Moreover, the falling leaves and the change in color of deciduous trees provide a stimulating play material for the children. The Japanese pagoda tree, Judas tree (Cersis siliquastrum), and silk tree are specified for the seating areas around the plaza, while a pepper tree (Schinus molle) is used as a specimen tree in the seating area at the northwestern side. Ornamental plants such as geraniums (Pelagronium domesticum), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and cape plumbago (Plumbago capensis) will be used in planters in different locations. A bougainvillea vine will be used to form an entry arch near the gateway that leads the visitors to the functions inside. A combination of ice plants (Drosanthemum floribundum and Carpobrutus edulis) will provide groundcovers for the artificial hill, which will become a landmark in the play environment and the surrounding area. Moreover, a row of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) will be used to create a hedge that defines the seating areas at the northwest and the free play zone at the west. Groups of lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) and lantana (Lantana camara) will provide shrubs that fill the space between the rows of Lavender and the evergreen trees at the west and northwest. A mimosa will serve as a specimen tree in the adventure play zone and in the play area reserved for small children as well. Another mimosa and two Japanese pagoda trees will be planted in the free play zone. The variety of forms, shapes, heights, colors, and fragrances will prove to be very stimulating for the children. (7)

Figure 9: Proposed planting design for the site.

A drip system with manual control will need to be used for watering the plants. A water reservoir should be incorporated to collect rainwater from the roof of the existing building and from the paved areas in the site. The slopes of the paved areas have been designed to lead the water to a collection location. (8)

The proposed design for the play environment at PBC in Sahab is intended to give the children choices, flexibility, variety, and contrast. It also is intended to allow children to exercise a degree of control and manipulation over their environment. It is hoped that it will provide the children with rich, provoking, and stimulating play experiences over time.

Meetings with the Children during Phase II:

The children were asked to play a different role during this second stage of the design process. Here, they were encouraged to actively participate in designing play structures and play spaces, to communicate with the adjacent school and neighbors, and to participate in decorating a puppet playhouse that was designed for the PBC. I had come to feel the need for including a puppet house as a result of my discussions with the children during the first stage of the process since the children emphasized the idea of pretend-play in their drawings. Such an element not only would give the children a chance to become involved in pretend play, but also would provide an effective educational tool for children in the Sahab area at large about numerous subjects of concern to their daily lives. The puppet playhouse primarily will be located indoors, in the multi-purpose hall in the PBC building, but also can be placed outdoors when the need arises.

In the first meeting of the second phase of the project, which started about five months after the conclusion of the first phase, the children were informed about the progress of the project since the conclusion of the first phase. I distributed copies of drawings I had prepared of the puppet house that included a plan, elevations, and an isometric. I also drew the plan and elevations of the puppet house on a blackboard for all to see. Some of the children could read the plan and elevations with relative ease since they had classes in school that taught them how to read such drawings. I also drew on the blackboard the schematic plan I had prepared for the play environment. This represented the various decisions we had made during the first phase of the project about the activities to be included in the play environment and their zoning. I also distributed pictures of play structures I took from magazines to give the children a more concise idea about what play structures look like and how they are used. In addition, I distributed a copy of the article about the project that was published in the NEF newsletter (and which is available on the NEF's web site). All of the children felt excited and proud of the article.

We then discussed the goals that we expected to accomplish during the second phase of the project. Following that, the children were divided into three teams: the design team, which was my responsibility; the drama team which was the responsibility of Ms. Fatima al-Taway’a of PBC; and the communication team, which was the responsibility of Mr. Ehab Melhem of NEF. Volunteers from the youth committee at PBC, which includes older children, also attended this meeting as well. The project was briefly discussed with them, and each of them chose the team in which he (there were no girls in the committee at that time) wanted to participate.

Starting with the second meeting, every team carried out its activity in a separate meeting room, and I will concentrate in the remaining part of this article on my experiences with the design team. I discussed with the design team the elements and the possible activities of the play structures of which images were distributed during the first meeting. The children believed that a play structure for those above ten years old should incorporate activities such as climbing, swinging, sliding, and jumping. They suggested, through drawings, a variety of tools and elements to achieve such activities. These tools and elements included platforms of different shapes, ropes, ladders, nets, slides, as well as hanging rings and bars.

We moved on to designing a play structure for children above ten years old during the third meeting. I pointed out the location of the play structure and its relation to the other elements presented in the schematic design of the play environment. We built a model of the play structure using inexpensive household materials such as empty boxes, onion bags, hairpins, straws, and disposable plates (figure 10).

Figure 10: Sequence of photographs that shows the
children constructing a model of the play structure they designed.

We had estimated a possible size for the play structure using a scale ruler, and agreed that the maximum possible length for it would be fifteen meters, and that its maximum height would range between 3 and 4 meters. The children wanted to go up to 6 meters, but we decided to stop at 4 meters for safety factors. The main platform of the play structure, with an area of about fifteen square meters, would be its highest and largest part. It also serves as the first station that connects with the bridge coming from the artificial hill.

The children chose different shapes and sizes for the other platforms. They decided to place a climbing net and circular steps at the front of the platform, a spiral ladder at the back, and a slide at the end of the circular platform, which they suggested would be connected to the main platform by a bridge. A climbing grid made of tubes or bars was suggested to enable the children to reach the bridge that connects the play structure with the free play zone.

The communication team had managed to convince some of the children of the neighborhood to attend our meetings. They also were briefed about our project. As a result, we had a few new children join the design team for the fourth meeting. During this meeting, work continued on designing the play structure. Hanging rings were suggested under the circular platform, and U-shaped bars were suggested under the main one. The children also suggested canopies of different shapes and colors to cover the platforms.

The artificial hill was then constructed for the model from piles of newspapers. The triangular shaped hill had a base of about twelve meters that is parallel to the street, and the line that extended from the apex of the hill towards the outdoor theater reached twenty-seven meters. A child raised the question of how to construct the hill in reality. We discussed the issue, and one of the children suggested bringing dirt and piling it up until it reaches the required shape and size. Concerning the issue of access to the top of the hill, one child suggested paving a path up to enable the children to reach the top. Looking back to the drawings prepared in the previous meeting, the children chose to use a ladder and climbing ropes that cascade from the wooden watch deck at the top of the hill to a height above the ground that little children would not be able to reach. We measured the height of the team members with their arms extending upwards, and we decided that an appropriate distance from the ground for the ropes would be 170 centimeters.

We continued construction of the model, and used an empty cardboard box to create the platform on top of the hill. A bridge in the shape of a tunnel was suggested to connect the hill with the play structure. The children indicated that this bridge should be strong and safe. They also suggested covering the platform with a canopy to enable the users to sit in the shade and watch the surroundings from this height.

During the fifth meeting we discussed the idea of a free play zone, which the children would be able to manipulate, to create their own simple play structures, and to practice their favorite games. The children listed some simple movable tools and materials that should be provided in that space and that would enable them to create their own games. They mentioned digging tools such as shovels and rakes, paper boxes, plastic blocks, barrels, wooden boards of different sizes, and tires.

Some children explained a few games involving tires that they had tried before. Used tires are easily available in Sahab because it is mainly an industrial area with many trucks coming in and out of it. I asked the children if they have any other group games that do not require special tools, such as folk games. They listed a few games that need a partner or more, and explained that some games are mainly for girls and others for boys. They added that some games are better performed on a hard surface while others require a soft one.

The schematic site plan that the children had developed during the first phase of the project shows a space reserved for an old vehicle that is to be redecorated and used as a play structure in the free play area. I asked the children about the possible vehicle type we could place in this limited space. Both the girls and boys became very excited and mentioned all sorts of car models. We classified the vehicles into cars, trucks, small “pickup” trucks, and buses. We needed a relatively small vehicle that would accommodate the largest number of children, and the children decided on a pickup truck or mini bus. The children listed the vehicle parts that need to be removed from the vehicle for safety purposes. They suggested removing the glass windows, doors, engine, and gas tank. However, they emphasized keeping the driving wheel, brakes, clutch, and seats. They also suggested adding curtains, and putting drawings on the external body of the vehicle. Most interestingly, they suggested fixing strong springs below the vehicle so that it would bounce up and down when they play inside it. They explained that this would create a sense of motion and will make the play experience more exciting. They added that they have had similar experiences playing with old cars in their own yards. The schematic site plan also included a playhouse. The children had listed during the first phase of the project a variety of materials that can be used for constructing this playhouse.

I then asked the children to divide themselves into two groups: one would draw images of the playhouse, and the other would add elements on a drawing of a bus and a drawing of a truck that might make the play experience more interesting and exciting. Interestingly enough, all the girls chose to be in the playhouse group, and the boys chose to be in the vehicle group. The images that the children drew of course will be taken into consideration when designing the playhouse and redecorating the vehicle.

The two other teams, the communication and drama teams, also achieved interesting results. The communication team visited three adjacent neighboring families. The children involved in the project were very excited about explaining it to the neighbors. One neighbor expressed concern about the noise that might come out of the play environment and that children playing there might throw stones into her yard. The group assured her that her concerns would be taken into consideration when designing the play environment. The other two neighbors showed enthusiasm for the project since it would be the only one in the area and their children will greatly benefit from such a play environment. The neighbors were encouraged to send their children to the center to participate in our activities, and as mentioned earlier, we therefore had a few additional children from the neighborhood join our fourth and fifth meetings. Ms. Fatima Taway’a, who led the drama team, approached the school administration to discuss the project with them. They welcomed the idea of the project, and expressed their willingness to cooperate with the center in any way that would help realize the play environment. The drama group also designed the puppet characters and selected a few plays and songs relating to environmental issues and the process of designing the play environment to explain the project and its significance to the community of Sahab.


Working with the children of Sahab has been a most fruitful experience for me. The children proved to be very logical in making the decisions that affected their play environment, and this reflected a deep awareness of the economic and social contexts in which they live and function. The children showed a high level of responsibility for the project, for they regularly attended the meetings and actively participated in them.

I feel we could have used about two additional meetings for each of the two phases of the project to be able to discuss issues with the children in a more extensive manner. The idea of holding a meeting once a week proved to be efficient, and gave the children adequate time to think about, reason, reflect upon, and digest the ideas that had been discussed in the previous meeting. Because of funding and logistical issues, we had to break for five months between the first and second phases of the project. This was too long. Although, the children did not loose interest in the project during this interim (more children even showed up for the second phase than for the first one), they were unhappy about the long interruption. A four to six week interim would have been more suitable since it would have provided me with the necessary time to further plan for the project and prepare the necessary designs, but would not have created too long of an interruption for the children between the two phases.

The construction drawings of the play environment will be presented to the children and to the Sahab community at large once they are completed and after setting a plan for implementing it with PBC and NEF. Work on the construction drawings is proceeding slowly because of funding limitations. Once the construction drawings are completed, we will move on to the third phase of the project, which will concentrate on involving the local community. It is expected that PBC will play a major role in the administration and communications efforts for this phase. A plan will need to be developed to define the proper tools that would fully engage the community, which includes the adjacent schools, neighbors of the site, and some of the industrial establishments of Sahab. All efforts will be made to involve these various stakeholders in this project, during the implementation of the project, and later on for its maintenance and management.


 (1) Diana Omet is a practicing architect in Amman. She holds her bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture from the University of Jordan. Her master's thesis dealt with the design of children's play environments. She is a mother of three children and also taught kindergarten in Saudi Arabia between 1988 and 1993.

The author would like to thank the staff of the Princess Basma Center and the Near East Foundation for enabling the process of designing the children's play environment at the Princess Basma Center. A special thanks also goes to the children of Sahab and the members of the Princess Basma Center youth committee who participated in this project. Diana Omet can be reached at

 (2) The Princess Basma Center (PBC) at Sahab is one of over 50 centers operated by the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Development (JOHUD). The center provides the local community with a wide range of social and economic development services, with an emphasis on women and children. One of the center's services is hosting a children's club that organizes a wide range of activities for the children.

 (3) 50 children were affiliated with the children’s club during the summer of 2000. 30 children (5 boys and 25 girls), mainly consisting of those who live near PBC, were invited by the center to attend the meetings of the first phase of the project, which extended from September 29 to November 25, 2000. Of the children, 5 were between 6 and 8 years of age, 12 between 9 and 11 years, and 12 between 12 and 14 years. More children joined the meetings of the second phase of the project as the children of Sahab became more familiar with our project through their friends and relatives who participated in the first phase. The second phase extended from April 28 to June 2, 2001. It started with 47 children (19 girls and 28 boys) attending the meetings, and the number sometimes reached more than 60. 38 of them joined the design team, of whom 15 were girls. 15 were between 9 and 11 years of age, 19 were between 12 and 14 years, 3 were above 14 years, and 1 was 8 years old.

 (4) The Near East Foundation is a private, nonprofit, development agency established in 1915. For additional information about the organization, see their web site at The web site also features information on the Sahab children's play environment project, which can be viewed in the "Cans for Kids" section of the site.

 (5) See Diana Omet, "Tasmim bi'at lu'b al-atfal" [Design of Children's Play Environments], Master's thesis, University of Jordan, 2000. Click here to view the abstract of the thesis.

 (6) The concept of play has been categorized in a variety of ways by various offers. I find Mary Sheradin's categorization of the types of play very useful in designing play environments for children. Sheradin adopts the traditional six classifications of main types of play for young children, and also adds a seventh category relating to older children and adults. Her categorization of play is as follows:

Active play presumes gross motor control of the head, trunk, and limbs. It later develops to include activities such as sitting, standing, running, climbing, jumping, throwing, kicking, and catching.

Exploratory and manipulative play begins at about 3 months of age with finger play and manipulation of domestic objects that the child finds around him or her.

Imitative play becomes clearly evident from 7 to 9 months of age. The child imitates functional activities that are repeated regularly by the people around him or her.

Constructive play or “end-product play” begins at about 18 to 20 months of age, and includes all play activities for which the child intentionally presents an end product. Examples include cut and paste activities, playing with clay, and painting.

Make-believe or pretend play begins at about 22 months of age. Through it, the child deliberately invents increasingly complex make-believe situation and often participates with play partners in living the events that he or she creates.

Games with rules or “win / lose games” usually start at about 4 years of age, and reflect the child's full understanding and acceptance of the meaning of sharing, taking turns, fair play, and accurate recording of results.

Sophisticated recreations include hobbies of every sort, which continue to give pleasure throughout life.

It is important to keep in mind that the beginning of each type of play is easily recognized, but children later develop a mix of these types of play. See Mary D. Sheridan, Spontaneous Play in Early Childhood From Birth to Six Years (Berkshire, NFER Publishing, 1977).

 (7) For more detailed information on drought tolerant plants that can be used in Jordan, see theWater Conserving Landscapes section of this web site. 

 (8) For additional information on water harvesting and irrigation, see the Water Conserving Landscapes section of this web site.

List of figures:

Figure 1: Initial visit to the site.

Figure 2: Site analysis that the children carried out. 

Figure 3: Samples of the drawings that the children prepared to express their conception of a play environment.

Figure 4: Map of the site.

Figure 5: An initial zoning of activities that the children prepared for the site.

Figure 6: Proposed site plan developed for the play environment.

Figure 7: Elevation drawings of the bridge connecting the adventure and free play areas, and the bridge connecting the artificial hill and the adventure area.

Figure 8: Elevation drawing of the wall in the free play area that is intended as a play element.

Figure 9: Proposed planting design for the site.

Figure 10: Sequence of photographs that shows the children constructing a model of the play structure they designed.

Selected bibliography:
Printed materials: 

Cohen, David. The Development of Play. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Ezz Al-Din, M. A. Child Environments. Kuwait: Kuwait University, 1990.

Friedberg, Paul M. "Juvenile Play Areas." In Handbook of Specialty Elements, edited by Andrew Alpern. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Gillette, Jane Brown. "Child's Play," Landscape Architecture (April 1996): 28-32.

Khawaldah, Muhammad. Al-lu'b al-sha'bi 'ind al-atfal [Popular Play amongst Children]. Irbid: Yarmouk University Press, 1987.

Marcus, Clare Cooper, and Carolyn Francis, eds. People Places: Design Guidelines for Urban Open Space. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990.

Morcos, R. E. "Design for Children in the Built Environment." Ph.D. diss., University of Ain Shams, 1991.

Motloch, John L. Introduction to Landscape Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991.

Moughtin, Cliff. Urban Design: Street and Square. Oxford: Butterworth Architecture, 1992.

Omet, Diana. "Tasmim bi'at lu'b al-atfal" [Design of Children's Play Environments]. Master's thesis, University of Jordan, 2000.

Rapoport, Amos. Thirty-Three Papers in Environmental Behaviour Research. New Castle: The Urban International Press, 1994.

Rudolph, Nancy. Work Yards, Playgrounds Planned for Adventure. New York: Columbia University Teachers College, 1974.

Sheridan, Mary D. Spontaneous Play in Early Childhood From Birth to Six Years. Berkshire: NFER Publishing, 1977.

Stine, Sharon. Landscapes for Learning: Creating Outdoor Environments for Children and Youth. New York: John Wiley, 1997.

UNESCO. The Child and Play: Theoretical Approaches and Teaching Applications. Paris: UNESCO, 1980.

Web Sites: (Web site of the Child Study Center at Ball State University. The site discusses the experience of designing a play environment for the Child Study Center by a group of students at Ball State University's College of Architecture and Planning.) (Web site of the Child Care Unit of the Department of Education of Tasmania, Australia. The site discusses various subjects related to childcare.) (This web site features an article by Kate Bishop, a designer of play environments, entitled "Designing Learning Environments for All Children: Variety and Richness.") (Web site of Play for All, a firm that specializes in the design and building of play equipment and play environments, particularly for children with special needs.) (This web site discusses the experience of designing and building an outdoor play area for the Skudeneshavan Primary School in Karmy, Norway. Both the teachers and parents of the community were actively involved in the design and construction of the play area.) (This web site addresses play as a form of therapy, and discusses how play can help children heal and grow.) (Web site of White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a real estate development consulting firm. The site contains a section devoted to designing recreational and learning play environments for children.)