• Blog
  • September 05, 2023

5 Types of Playful Placemaking Experiences

Humans are dynamic creatures, which results from rich and varied types of play activities. Research has identified five types of play that are an integral part of human development:

Movement Play — Humans’ awareness about themselves and the environment around them begins through movement. Movement is primal and accompanies all the elements of play, forming the structure of human knowledge of the world. It is, in fact, a way of knowing everything around us. We understand and experience that humans dance (moving their bodies) as well as hum and sing (movement of vocal cords and mouth). We understand running, jumping, swimming, etc. as forms of play; often seeing these as the most universal forms of movement play. But humans think in movement, and have crafted our written and oral languages to use terms like “close, distant, open, closed” when describing emotions or using “grasp, wrestle, or stumble upon” when referring to ideas. Biologically, movement fosters learning, innovation, flexibility, adaptability, and resilience, making it an important part of keeping minds and bodies healthy at every age, as well as a useful communication tool

Movement is invited at nearly every stage of the process. Community conversations are often held at markets, festivals, or other community events and they include a wide range of games and activities as part of the experience. Tours to explore places through some human-powered or “slow” movement are also important components. Trying It On is an even deeper exploration into movement and knowing a site through movement. Participants can experience the space in a way that no drawing or rendering can ever provide. Being able to literally move in the design concept shifts participants to a new relationship with the world.

Object Play — Our curiosity about and willingness to play with “objects'' is ingrained in us as humans, and we are not alone in our interest in this form of play. Humans and animals alike find joy and value in playing with toys. and starting at an early age, toys take on highly personalized characteristics, and as skill support in manipulating objects (i.e., banging on pans, skipping rocks, etc.). As we grow, those early manipulation skills expand with tinkering, building and taking apart, creating richer, more complex circuits in the brain.5 Hands playing with all types of objects help brains develop beyond strictly manipulative skills, supporting effective adult problem solving, with play as the driver of this development.

Team Building and Kick Off games regularly include holding and sharing objects as well as games centered around name tags. Visualization activities include everything from flipping through magazines to using scissors and glue sticks. Try It On activities might include the use of physical object props such as hula hoops, buckets, boxes, chairs, trees and plants, food trucks, wooden palettes, inner tubes, and even musicians.

Storytelling-Narrative Play — Scientists note that storytelling has been identified as a central piece of human, and even species development. A critical function of the left hemisphere of the human brain is to continually create stories about why things are the way they are, putting disparate pieces of information together into a useful context.5 We learn from story and analogy, we share information in the form of story, and that information is retained more often when we relate personally to the story.

Through storytelling, the community is able to relate to one another and to their physical space quickly. Using different visual activities, participants can share a wide range of stories about obstacles or opportunities, limitations or vulnerabilities, or the wide possibilities of dreams. When community members capture each other’s stories in ways that they can see and measure, they build trust and actively listen to one another.

Creative Play — Play is all about trying on new behaviors and thoughts, freeing us from established patterns.5 In healthy children, creative play is a constant part of their world and often goes unnoticed. This creative and imaginative play stays with us throughout our lifetime and forms the backbone of creative endeavors. When we engage in creative play at any age, we are free to explore new ideas without risk, which can generate new scientific breakthroughs, help us take on new hobbies that lead to business ventures, imagine our dream home or invent new devices that change the world. In each of these cases, people are using their playfulness to innovate and create.

Trying It On is an activity that is well-connected to creative play. It is an opportunity to wholly imagine and create a “make believe” version of the world the community wishes to create in real life. The group tries on, over and over, various design ideas and imagines themselves and others in each design. They can see constraints and opportunities that may have eluded them before. In order to build trust and find consensus it is important that play and fun continue as the building blocks of each Try It On experience.

Social Play — Humans are social creatures, and play forms the building blocks of human social health and wellness. Play experts note that subtypes of
social play such as “Friendship and Belonging” as well as “Rough and Tumble” play are important in human development. Humans begin social play in a state of what is called “parallel play”, sitting next to one another, each engaging in their own activity. This play serves as a bridge to cooperative play.9 While we typically understand this as a childhood phenomena, we see this play out in adolescents and adults as well, particularly in new social circumstances or when undertaking a new task at work or new type of recreational activity. Humans will align themselves to observe, and try the tasks on their own, often before jumping into cooperative activities. Being able to jump to these mutual play opportunities is the backbone of developing empathy for others. Observing and seeing the contributions of others to the overall value of the experience supports their understanding of other points of view. This mutual play is the basic state of friendship that will be at work throughout our lives.

Group dynamic experiences are perfect opportunities for social play. Notably, all versions of team building games, particularly the kick off games, set the tone for the social dynamic of the project or committee. Both large and small-group sharing games support active listening, empathy, collaboration, and negotiation. Acknowledgment is a key component of strong social play, and is equally valuable when the team is acknowledging public participants, as well as when participants are supported in acknowledging one another.

Read more about Playful Placemaking!

Request the publication below.

Request Playful Placemaking

More in Blog

Related News


Jan. 06, 2024

Inclusion: Providing equal opportunities for physical and social play

Beyond disability, there are abilities; beyond accessibility, there is inclusion.


Oct. 14, 2023

Language Matters! Disability Language Tips & Examples

Use these disability terminology tips to raise awareness and champion inclusive programs and spaces in your community!


Oct. 14, 2023

Inclusive Features to Positively Enhance Park Experiences for All Visitors

Use this comprehensive park checklist to thoughtfully create a welcoming atmosphere and outdoor play and recreation destinations.