Four examples of supporting children’s play in low-income urban neighbourhoods

International Day of Play Blog

Author: Sudeshna Chatterjee

The International Day of Play (IDOP) on June 11th is a unifying global moment to celebrate the power of play for all children everywhere. In this first blog of a 3-part blog series, Sudeshna Chatterjee describes the importance of play for children and demonstrates how local governments, urban practitioners, NGOs and communities can collaborate to nurture children’s play in cities through four examples.

IDOP draws attention to Article 31[i] of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes children’s right to age-appropriate play, recreation, rest, and leisure. It can act as a catalyst for action to promote this right, particularly in cities, where safe, stimulating places for play are fast disappearing.

Play is fundamental for all children

Play is not frivolous. Through play, children discover and make sense of the world, bond with family, peers, and nature, learn to appreciate art, culture, and traditions, and build skills for life. Play, in short, is fundamental for the development of healthy, happy and caring individuals.

Children generally find a way to play even in the least accommodating situations. But ideally, play opportunities should be close to home, diverse, inviting, safe yet challenging, and allow for contact with nature and the wider spatial environment. These opportunities and spaces for everyday play are quickly disappearing in cities.

In well-to-do and poorer neighbourhoods, children’s schedules are often packed with extra classes or household chores. Lanes and streets outside homes, where caregivers can watch children as they play, are taken over by vehicles, garbage, or open drains. Green spaces are disappearing and are almost non-existent in the poorest neighbourhoods, where they are most needed. Further, play provision in cities rarely goes beyond static playgrounds with fixed equipment.

So, how can we transform our cities to nurture children’s play, especially in the heart of low-income urban neighbourhoods?

Understand where and how children play and remove barriers to play

This is really crucial as urban practitioners continue to equate play provision for children with creating formal parks and playgrounds. However, observing children’s free play, particularly in low-income neighbourhoods, makes it clear that liminal spaces (informal, leftover spaces), typically not designed for play, with abundant loose parts such as sand, water, sticks, stones and other materials, can be vital for fulfilling children’s right to play. Liminal spaces include small open spaces around buildings, vacant lots, narrow streets and alleys, staircases, terraces, and doorsteps.

As part of a research-into-action project, I observed children play in Khirkee, New Delhi, a medieval urban neighbourhood steeped in history that can be traced back to the 14th century. Because of its special status as an urban village[ii], Khirkee’s narrow lanes and car-free open spaces are, to a large extent, protected and preserved.

A map of Khirkee showing small and large green and paved open spaces as mapped in 2011 © Sudeshna Chatterjee/Play@Khirkee

Observations of children’s play showed that:

  • Boys, girls, younger and older children played outdoors every day. They mainly played in liminal spaces using loose parts like leaves, twigs, stones, sand, and treasures retrieved from construction debris, making up games and rules.
  • Children preferred and played more creatively in a park that lacked maintenance and, by extension, rules and restrictions for play, as compared to a well-maintained and rule-dominated larger park
  • Play flowed through an interconnected system of large green spaces, pedestrian streets, squares, and tiny parks. Children took full advantage of this spatial arrangement; boys would start out playing sports in large open spaces after school and, by sunset, would trickle into the streets where girls and younger children were already playing more traditional games. Both boys and girls engaged in spontaneous games of hide and seek using the staircases and terraces of nearby flats before finally entering the tiny park that served as their outdoor living room.
  • Imaginative play with found objects in a courtyard © Sudeshna Chatterjee

Despite the joy and freedom associated with play in Khirkee, some physical and social barriers to play also became apparent through neighbourhood observation. These included:

  • Prohibitive signage in more formal parks restricting play on the grass or with any outside toys or equipment. Every evening, an office bearer of the Residents Welfare Association came around with a thick stick to chase away the children and ensure that the manicured lawns and flower beds were protected. This confirms Paul Friedburg’s remark, “We have taken the romance [and play] out of our parks because of our mania about maintenance.”
  • Adults taking over fenced parks for growing plants and other activities and restricting children’s play
  • Children were afraid to play in places that were dirty and dark or where adults were drinking and gambling
  • Older women preventing entry to local parks for children from lower castes

Play mapping in Khirkee Village (2011) © Sudeshna Chatterjee

The study highlighted that children are creative and resourceful in carving out their play spaces and opportunities. More than designing and building parks and playgrounds for play, identifying, protecting, and preserving spaces claimed by children for play is vital for enabling play in neighbourhoods. For that to happen, there is a need to engage with adults in positions of authority and community-based organizations to advocate for and enable all children’s right to play.

Four examples of co-creating neighbourhood play environments

1. ‘Play on wheels’: A Mobile pop-up play solution developed in Khirkee, New Delhi

The local arts NGO that supported the Play@Khirkee study asked me to design an inclusive play space for children. Having observed how children play, I was convinced that creating one more park would not further play opportunities for children, particularly for girls from deprived families.

Instead, we decided to protect, preserve, and enhance play in existing play spaces by engaging with a local architect and involving children and the community in codesigning a pop-up-play system called Play-on-Wheels (PoW) using pushcarts that could be wheeled through narrow lanes and which could be opened up to reveal different play affordances. It also acts as storage for toys and books. This allowed local organizations to set up temporary play environments using loose parts in any street or open space at different times.

  • Conceptualisation of Play-on-Wheels in Khirkee © Sudeshna Chatterjee

The PoW was first piloted in a low-income neighbourhood in the city of Kolkatta by an NGO focusing on children’s rights, and not in Khikee, as it lacked community-based organizations working with children.

PoW was challenging to sustain as a neighbourhood resource. Securing a safe storage space for the carts and extending continued support to local NGOs to manage and maintain the intervention was difficult. Instead, PoW today is operational within the controlled environment of a children’s home for HIV-positive children in Kolkata that has ample open spaces but little opportunities for free play.

2. A dry drainage canal preserved and upgraded as a key neighbourhood play territory in Fresnillo, Mexico

In the city of Fresnillo, in the Zacatecas state in Mexico, architects Alin W. Wallach and Rozana Montiel, as part of the national Social Housing Renewal and Revitalization Programme called PROCHURA, transformed a half-kilometre-long dry drainage canal running through the heart of a 40-year-old social housing development into a safe and active play zone.

The PROCURHA program engaged architectural firms to partner with local governments and communities to develop and produce locally relevant and low-cost innovative solutions for public and communal spaces in largely run-down neighbourhoods.

The architects observed the spontaneous ways children played in the paved drainage canal – such as sliding down on the sides on garbage can lids – and decided to retain and enhance the canal as a play space. Slide-able and sit-able spaces, a universally accessible bridge, greenery, and playful elements were added to uplift the space. Community groups activated the space with festivals and group classes to enhance social life. The innovative design of the play and recreational environment with durable fixed materials makes it easy to maintain and transforms an urban liminal space.

  • Before picture of the dry drainage canal. Source:

Here is a film on the Fresnillo canal play space from Rozana Montiel Estudio.

3. ‘Platform of hope’ and play in an informal settlement in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Landscape and community architect Khondaker Hasibul Kabir has engaged with informal settlement residents to co-create housing projects and public spaces in Bangladesh. One of his early interventions is in Korail, a large slum settlement on the banks of Banani Lake in Dhaka. Kabir decided to live in Korail to understand the local community’s needs better. In his conversations with local children, he discovered what they wanted most was a play space they could claim and call their own.

This led to the co-creation of a raised bamboo platform over the lake abutting their settlement. Children were the main protagonists, designers, and negotiators. They reached out to relatives, parents, and grandparents – anyone who would listen to them in the community – to help construct their bamboo platform.

The play space called Ashar Macha (Platform of Hope) was built by the community. It became a central community node much valued by children and women, particularly for play, socializing, and resting. Children and the community took responsibility for managing and maintaining the platform. The platform’s success spurred further changes in the community, such as transforming disused spaces into small-scale gardens and farms.

  • Before the 'Platform of Hope' was built © Archnet

4. Play at street intersections in Maputo, Mozambique

UN-Habitat and partners in Maputo, Mozambique, involved children in codesign processes to improve the quality of public spaces in the city. An intervention site was identified in a neighbourhood that experienced high rates of crime and violence and lacked adequate public services.

Exploratory walks with children indicated that pathways and roads were their main spaces for play. The intervention site was a liminal space in the heart of an intersection of three unpaved roads. The large street intersection was codesigned with children to include play, rest, leisure, and socialization spaces. The project’s sustainability is embedded in its participatory approach. Local communities, including children and local civil society associations that co-created the spaces, play an active role in maintaining and managing them.

  • Participatory design with children in Maputo © UN-Habitat Mozambique Country Office

The four examples from India, Mexico, Bangladesh, and Mozambique show that despite the many challenges of rapid urbanization and growing inequality, children claim diverse places in the public realm for play outside formal parks and playgrounds. The examples make a strong case for respecting children’s rights to play and engaging them in reconceptualizing public spaces to protect, preserve, and promote play in cities. Liminal spaces in neighbourhoods and cities should be viewed as vibrant children’s territories where some of the richest play experiences are nurtured and where promoting children’s play furthers children’s right to the city.


[i] The United Nations Convention on Right of the Child, ratified by 196 countries, as per Article 31 states that:

  1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  1. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.’

[ii] The special status of ‘urban village’ in New Delhi exempts urban neighbourhoods with historic significance from following the city’s development regulations as codified in the city’s master plan. Even though buildings are subject to speculative control-free development, the structure of streets and open spaces have remained intact in Khirkee.

[iii] Archnet material is available for instructional, non-profit use, and personal use on the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) license.

About the Author

Dr Sudeshna Chatterjee is a globally recognised urban practitioner, evaluation specialist, researcher, and published author. She led the research and writing of the Global Principles and Guidance for Public Spaces for Children  and a compendium of 50 case studies on public spaces supported by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and the World Health Organization (WHO). She is currently serving as the programme director for Sustainable Cities and Transport at the World Resources Institute (WRI) India Ross Centre for Cities. All opinions expressed in this blog are personal.

We are grateful to Dr Sheridan Bartlett for reviewing this blog.

The Public Spaces for Children series showcases ideas for action, innovation, programmes, policies and practices that make public spaces child-friendly. Read more of our blogs here.

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