Across the United States, playful trails and pathways are being added to both urban and suburban neighborhoods. Trail owners are increasing community capital, encouraging active lifestyles, and utilizing infrastructure that is often already in place by creating more interactive paths that add playful stops along the way. Many trail and pathway owners are finding that although the path is utilized by couples, joggers, dog walkers, cyclists, and seniors, the usage by children and families is not as prevalent. Playful paths take the trail model beyond the traditional user to more fully engage the public with new ways to attract children to the trail. By engaging children in nature, we can promote future generations who will value open space, parks, and wildlife, while engaging children and families in both fun and environmental immersion.
Many children today don’t have the same opportunities to interact with nature as their adult counterparts did when they were children. Urban density, crowded schedules, and lack of amenities within walking distance all contribute to the sedentary lifestyles and the disconnect with nature we recognize in many of today’s children. Children who are desensitized to the wonders of nature may not immediately take to it like the proverbial duck to water. Providing them with playful adventures along an outdoor pathway may help bridge the gap from indoor computer gamer to outdoor nature lover. Playful paths are designed for just this purpose, by offering short to medium distances peppered with playful stops along the way that allow children the opportunity to play, relax, and take in their surroundings.
Research observations of playful pathways in Chattanooga, TN, Cary, NC, Richardson, TX, and Springfield, MO have yielded positive findings, providing new insight onto how infusing play into trail and path networks cap positively affect usage, duration of stay, and play behaviors. The location chosen plays a powerful role in its overall success. A well-located playful path can add:
Increased usage. Areas observed were not well utilized before the addition of the playful exhibits, and attracting people to the trail was a key objective. After installation of the playful exhibits along the trail, traffic grew considerably, and continues to grow as word of mouth spreads.
Diversification of participant ages. Rather than just the occasional jogger or adult walker, the trails observed were being used by young families, bringing a vibrant sense of energy to the space.
Places to play, and to rest. Because the overall walk was broken into small, manageable segments, the overall adventure was more enjoyable by younger members of the family. The play pockets located along the trail gave children a place to rest, play, refocus, observe, and interact.
Magnetism. The interactive playful exhibits along the way worked as magnets to encourage children to continue. Rather than paths that lack focal points or fun activities, the play trails had children abuzz wondering what they would find next. Children who had already been to the trail made new friends with new arrivals-by sharing their experiences and explaining the fun adventures that awaited ahead.
Increased family interaction. Rather than parents finding a bench and sitting while their children play, the families on the path interacted along with their children, interpreting signs, sharing the experience, playing games, and communicating.
Communities looking to increase pathway usage in their own communities are encouraged to examine locations closely for the following criteria when establishing a potential location for a playful path, to help encourage usage and success.
- Form - Is the pathway curving and sinuous, or a straight line. Curving paths make a more exciting route, as they create an air of mystery as walkers wonder what is coming up next. Looping paths are even more appropriate, as the play can be experienced in a variety of ways, and users do not need to return to start by retracing steps.
- Location- Climate, geology, topology, etc. can all offer education potential, while paths in more densely populated areas may enjoy a greater usage than more rural pathways.
- Access-how long is the path, will it be considered too long or short to be useable? Dos the path connect meaningful destinations like schools, friends’ homes, entertainment venues?
- Usability-Has the tread slope, surface, and width of the path been considered to offer usability to the widest group of people?
- Safety- Is the site separated from traffic, well maintained, and does it enjoy good visibility to make users feel more comfortable?
- Jurisdiction – Is the pathways affected by differing regulations, for instance county, city, or floodway regulations?
By choosing the right location, pathway owners can help increase participation, create opportunities for community connectivity, promote healthy behavior for people of all ages and abilities, and offer a unique way for families to play and recreate together!
To learn more about Playful paths, check out Pathways For Play®: Infusing Play Into Pathway Networks (Best Practice Guidelines) which demonstrates ways to infuse play into pathway networks to encourage active lifestyles for children, families, and communities.