The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Public Spaces

Design competition aims to give DC beautiful and functional play spaces

There is a growing need for children's play spaces in DC, but some think that playgrounds are unsightly and detract from public space. To address this, the Office of Planning (OP) is holding an international competition to design art-based play spaces for underserved neighbor­hoods.

The winner of the Playable10 International Design Competition, a playground in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. The shape incorporates the letters "ATL." Photo by Cynthia Gentry.

This is the first time DC has held such a competition. "We are responding to the increasing number of families living in the District and their desire for more playgrounds," said OP urban designer Thor Nelson. "OP seeks a design that approaches play spaces in an innovative way—playable art both kids and adults can enjoy."

KaBOOM, a DC-based organization that focuses on increasing kids' access to play, created a map that documents the District's "play deserts," where no play area exists within a half-mile walk of a given neighborhood. Mt. Vernon Triangle, NoMA, and Southwest particularly need play spaces, as more families with kids move there.

Map by KaBOOM.

Play deserts have profound adverse physical, intellectual, social and emotional impacts on children. KaBOOM finds that neighborhoods without a park or playground see 29% more child obesity. Children without a park or playground are five times less likely to be a healthy weight that children with a play space within a half mile.

Furthermore, studies reveal that minority and low-income communities are less likely to have safe places to play and be active, impacting child well-being. Children in poverty are 159% more likely to be deprived of recess; 70% African American and 81% of Hispanic neighborhoods lack recreational facilities; and sidewalks in African-American communities are 38 times more likely to be low quality. As a result, more kids in these communities grow up with obesity and diabetes, in addition to other related health risks.

Ideas about play and playground design have changed dramatically over the years, as litigation in the 1970's and the release of safety guidelines for playgrounds in 1981 pressured designers and engineers to integrate these recommendations into new play sites. Cities and designers were concerned that parents would launch lawsuits as a result of injury their kids' experienced. As a result, rubber mats and wood chips began replacing monkey bars and dirt.

Now playgrounds are safer, but at what cost to kids? Research shows that these risk-averse playgrounds detract from kids' learning. Six kinds of risky play benefit child development: exploring heights, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, speed, and exploring on one's own. When all playgrounds meet the same standards, kids aren't challenged and don't have space to be creative.

However, some playgrounds are going against the conventional wisdom. The Land, in North Wales, UK, is an adventure playground where kids can play with fire and wander on their own. They are supervised by "playworkers," professionals trained to create and manage a play environment for children. Adventure grounds are already being built across the US, such as the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California and The Anarchy Zone/a> in Ithaca, New York. Additionally, the Beauvoir playground, a favorite playground by the National Cathedral in Northwest DC, has lots of interactive and exciting structures for kids of all ages to enjoy.

In these new play spaces, kids experience self-growth and build confidence. In 2010, the Alliance for Childhood published "The Playwork Primer," which explains playwork and outlines how groups are working to establish playwork as a profession in the United States.

While the Playable Art DC competition is not looking for an adventure playground, necessarily, OP encourages applicants to approach playground design with varied lenses, and generate ideas beyond common assumptions. "While concerns of safety and liability are important ones, they do not have to negate creative solutions and enjoyable play spaces," said Nelson.

Interested designers, engineers, and artists can attend an information session tonight, and applications are due on April 24. ArtPlace America awarded OP a grant to fund the winning projects.

Community members will be invited to attend workshops with the designers of the winning projects. The more involved the community in the design of a play space, the more appropriate it will be. "One of the keys to a successful design is communication between community and designer," said Cynthia Gentry, founding director of the Atlanta Taskforce on Play."

This is just the beginning of DC's effort to tackle the community's growing demand for play spaces. Let's get creative and encourage kids to do what they do best—play and learn through play.

Antonia Sohns is a freelance writer whose articles focus on science, community and politics. She has written for several publications, including SGI News, the World Bank, Worldwatch Institute and Island Press. She currently lives in Washington, DC where she is a Water and Energy Analyst for the Thirsty Energy initiative at the World Bank. 


Add a comment »

"some think that playgrounds are unsightly and detract from public space." If we have no problem with Jersey Barriers all over town, how's a bunch of kids equipment with kids playing a problem? This is one instance where function should reign supreme over aesthetics, should the two come into comflict.

by Thayer-D on Apr 8, 2014 2:56 pm • linkreport

You missed something—a link to

by BCA on Apr 8, 2014 4:14 pm • linkreport

A lot of places in Ward 1, which is not really surprising. I would say that we have a lot of places that aren't traditional playgrounds which are still great such as Meridian Hill Park, reasonable access to National Zoo via Harvard, and Rock Creek park which offset the lack of formal playgrounds.

by BTA on Apr 8, 2014 4:21 pm • linkreport

There are a few parking lots in perfect locations to convert to a playground...

by BTA on Apr 8, 2014 4:23 pm • linkreport

Now that I'm a parent of a 3 year old every decently equipped playground is the most beautiful thing in the area. That new one opened out in Potomac Yard shows the power and opportunity of a good playground.

by NikolasM on Apr 8, 2014 5:45 pm • linkreport

How lovely to label playgrounds as "unsightly" and "detracting from public space"- perhaps we could also reserve a walled off spaced for the neighborhood curmudgeons amongst us.

by Adam on Apr 8, 2014 10:11 pm • linkreport

This seems like a good place to mention that the McMillan Plan strongly encouraged the building of playground across the city. From p. 81, "One such special use to which several squares should be devoted in different parts of the city is that of playgrounds; and these, too, should be considered individually and not in any wholesale or uniform way."

I do think the city is making good progress on playgrounds. Considering the change in Brookland from a couple of years ago to now. There used to be a handful of run-down playgrounds, but now we have excellent spaces at Noyes Park, Burroughs school, and Turkey Thicket. I've also taken my 6-year old to excellent playgrounds at the Takoma Rec Center and the Rosedale Rec Center.

by Tom Metcalf on Apr 9, 2014 1:41 am • linkreport

Here's a suggestion - instead of adults designing and determining the appearance of children's facilities (and usually producing something they like the look of but is low in play quality because they don't know a good playspace from a hole in the ground), why not create spaces where children do their own playing without adults standing over them, dictating how they should play?
I've only been to DC once but it sounds like Rock Creek is the nearest to a rich play environment on offer.
My company, OPAL Outdoor Play, transforms play spaces in the UK from boring, clichéd steel, plastic and rubber into rich, exciting environments that enable children to play as they always have, up until a couple of decades ago when adult paranoia and the need to have constant control took over, and ruined childhood play (and personal development).
Think about it.

by Neil Coleman on Apr 9, 2014 2:53 am • linkreport

DC has done a great job with many parks lately. Someone already mentioned Turkey Thicket but they also renovated the park on Hamlin Street, Fort Stevens playground, Banneker and the park at Shepherd Elementary School. My child loves them all.

by CommonDenominator on Apr 9, 2014 10:46 am • linkreport

When my mother was a teenager in New York City in the 60s, her summer job was working as a "parkie" in one of her neighborhood parks. From the stories she's told me, the job was similar to a playworker creating and managing a play environment for children. It looks like the NYC Parks Department still has playground associates; I wonder if it would be feasible for DC to do the same.

by Shannon on Apr 9, 2014 1:06 pm • linkreport

For the past 22 years, the DC Building Industry Assoc. has been transforming the needed playgrounds in DC into wonderful updated spaces. Every year it gets better and more and more involvement. Have a look at what we did the past years. I am still amazed at the wonderful work that was done last year.

We encourage the community input and involvement.

by Derek_G_M on Apr 9, 2014 6:55 pm • linkreport

Kids having fun are unsightly and detracting from public space. Better to have sightly parks without anywhere kids with their parents can play, that way the view and noise is less tainted by children. Especially avoid putting in swingsets, those hideous objects are child favorites.

by asffa on Apr 9, 2014 7:38 pm • linkreport

The map is missing playgrounds in Ward 7. For example, in my neighborhood, it appears they identified the playground at Anne Beers Elementary school. However it left out the playground at Hillcrest Recreation (which got an overhaul), on NPS land right next to Francis A. Gregory Library (new playground equipment added last year), and Fort Davis Recreation Center.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Apr 9, 2014 10:51 pm • linkreport

All that being said.... I don't mind having anything new in Ward 7 :-)

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Apr 9, 2014 10:52 pm • linkreport

It would be amazing for KaBOOM to provide Kingman Park with a new playground. There is a substandard play area on Events DC space that is falling apart and poorly maintained. We've tried for years for improvements, but they've refused. There are also a couple pieces of equipment at Apple Tree for 3-4 year olds, but it is not significant. There is a growing demand in the neighborhood for something more substantial and safe. I guess we contact KaBOOM for more information?

by Robert Coomber on Apr 9, 2014 11:03 pm • linkreport

I am the GIS Manager at KaBOOM! which means I analyze spatial data and create maps. I helped create the play desert map featured in this article.

Veronica – Thank you for bringing those playgrounds to our attention! The graphic might be a little tricky to read, but it looks like we actually do have Hillcrest Recreation in the map and I will update the map to include Fort Davis Recreation Center and the NPS playground. Since the maps are created using quality controlled crowdsourced playspace information, you, and anyone could help map missing playspaces. Crowdsourcing helps us use local knowledge to understand the state of play in communities across the country. If you see a missing playground, visit and contribute to our crowdsourcing efforts to help us illustrate the best data possible!

Robert – If you want to learn more on how to build a playground with KaBOOM! check out:

by Liz Dow on Apr 10, 2014 12:16 pm • linkreport

Lisa - I sent an email last night to the email provided by kaboom's twitter. It looks like the playgrounds I have identified have been added. Thanks for your responsiveness.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Apr 10, 2014 3:37 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us