• Blog
  • October 31, 2018

Playing Along the Pathways

Research by Natural Learning Initiative suggests that curving pathway alignments with secondary loops off the main pathway may more likely motivate pedestrian use as well as stimulate more intense physical activity by children. Pathways have a temporal dimension. Like musical scores, pathways are “played” by users. Adventurous adults as much as playful children enjoy linear recreational experiences because anticipatory perception keeps the mind alert – even more so if the trail rises and falls as well as curves.

Playful pathways provide a trajectory through three-dimensional space, enjoyable by all family members. The smaller and more intimate the scale, the more enjoyable by children. Since urban pathways typically follow a smooth, relatively flat grade, they are easily accessible to people using mobility devices, enabling them to participate naturally in play activity.

“Looping pathways are your best friend,” says prominent greenway designer, Chuck Flink. They tend to offer the most satisfying pathway experience for users in general and kids in particular, because looping forms integrate continuity and scale, and provide a choice of distance ahead of time. Users may more likely be motivated to make a return trip in the opposite direction.

Children’s spontaneous, independent play requires interaction with intimate, diverse physical surroundings to fully activate the type of social interaction that is such an essential characteristic of play. Spontaneous play has a particular tempo linked to the scale of children’s immediate surroundings. Play spaces need to be small enough in scale to afford continuous interaction. If linear spaces are too large with insufficient diversity, they will not hold children’s attention. Several key factors can support the infusion of play into pathways.

Meaning destinations

Pathways connecting places where children (including organized school and youth groups) want to go, such as playgrounds and parks, will attract higher levels of use.

looping-pathways.jpg#asset:10751Sinuosity or curves

A measurable, positive factor stimulating interest for children. Curvy tread alignments can reduce pathway scale and provide a sense of exploration and intrigue for children who anticipate adventures that await them “around the next corner” as they move through a constantly shifting visual field. This type of temporal, progressive disclosure, so well understood by Japanese garden designers, makes the small seem larger than it is by packing diversity into a small space but in an ordered  manner so that choices are presented sequentially. City parks retrofitted with curvy, playful pathways could offer increased play value and ensure that the repertoire of play experiences is not fully disclosed with moments of arriving. Children have to “work” to discover the play value along the way.

Historical/cultural features

Historical and cultural features can offer cultural identity and educational value for children, helping them understand where they live and to appreciate their cultural roots.

Built features such as tunnels, bridges, and overpasses may reinforce place identity, increase visual interest, and encourage movement and a sense of adventure. Landscape design can reflect local natural history by using plants that may have special significance; for example, tree species that represent forest industry or fruit trees that reflect agricultural production and could be managed by 4-H youth groups. Stonework could be quarried locally. Pathway artifacts such as bridges may reflect local history.

Cultural artifacts could reinforce local racial/ethnic traditions (Native American/Inuit, Hispanic, African American, and a multitude of Asian and European cultural expressions). Pathway experiences could be enriched by art works, including “earth art” and “playful art.”

Natural features

Natural features can add fascination, mystery, intrigue, and educational value for children. Rock formations/outcroppings, special landscape views, historic or specimen trees, wetlands, and other unique habitats may influence pathway layout and add physical identity and meaning to the pathway corridor.

Built features

Play elements, tunnels, bridges, overpasses, etc., will affect visual interest of the corridor while encouraging continuous movement, adventure, and a sense of place.

Learn more about playful pathways.

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