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A Recipe for Playful Communities…in 1000 Words or Less

by The PLACE Research Lab Team The PLACE Research Lab | December 8 2016

I don’t need much motivation to have a piece of cake at a birthday party—it’s the delicious, obvious choice—but how do we make walking to work, taking the stairs or walking during breaks the fun, obvious choice every day? My research studies how play—an innate motivator for all of us—can motivate urban activity. Have a look at my method for understanding how existing research and experimentation with playful, active environments can inform and inspire you to create something similar in your workplace. I hope you take away a few crumbs of wisdom to create your own recipe for play.

Step 1: Assemble Dry Ingredients

Academic literature can be notoriously dry. So, I sifted through to find the real nuggets on what motivates people and what play means for adults. What I found was way more than half-baked ideas! Research shows that:

  • Play for adults is important for physical, mental and social well-being
  • Play is voluntary
  • We're motivated to play when there is an opportunity for simulation, chance and/or vertigo (including acting contrary to social convention or moving differently than usual)
  • Urban environments can inspire playful behavior

Use this evidence to gain support for developing playful ideas as initiatives to promote employee wellness.

Step 2: Assemble Wet Ingredients

For this step, I got to splash around in the real world by looking for examples of interventions that used play to motivate pedestrians. Some were quite exotic, while others had very familiar ingredients but new flavours. Check out some of these innovative examples of play in urban environments for inspiration in your spaces:

  • Fun Theory’s Piano Stairs: encourages subway users to use the musical staircase rather than the escalator
  • Buro Sant en Co’s Roombeek The Brook: encourages pedestrians to choose their own route on stepping stones across a revitalized stream
  • Daily Tous les Jours’ 21 Swings: emits more harmonious sounds as users swing in unison

Step 3: Combine All Ingredients

My next task was to compare the academic findings on play and motivation with what I saw in the real world. What concepts from my readings were echoed in urban interventions? Was something happening on the streets that the literature did not discuss?

Step 4: Divide Onto a Cookie Sheet and Bake

To make sense of this comparison, I created a typology to summarize the types, designs and implementation of urban play based on the literature and examples I found. For example, some designs encourage competition, while others facilitate cooperation. Many use props in the urban environment to playfully alter day-to-day movements. Some of the examples of urban play are temporary, pop-up style interventions, while others are large, permanent landmarks. The table below is a brief summary of my findings. There is a lot of flexibility and creativity required but you don’t need to be an expert to design and support urban play!

Play Type Design Approach to Implementation
Adaptation of a well-known game Attractive Colours Busy location
Competition or cooperation Unique paths Infill underused space
Opportunity to increase social contact Use of common, everyday materials or objects Opportunity to people-watch
See cause-and-effect Use of props to alter movement Route choice or environmental mastery
See or move beyond boundaries Water Temporary, pop-up or seasonal
Test of physical skills Written instructions Use of social media or pop culture

A typology of urban play (adapted from Donoff, 2014, p.138)

Step 5: Serve up the Play

As wellness champions, you can borrow these ideas for your own playful work environments. Here are a few examples to try:

  • Create your own tiny games (inspired by the design studio Hide and Seek): Post the rules at different locations around your school or office. For example, try starting with Hide and Seek’s Invisible Mirror. It’s a game for two players, standing on either side of a pillar, facing each other but with a pillar in between. Player 1 chooses a pose. Player 2 has to try to copy it without seeing it, asking 10 yes/no questions. After 10 questions, both players jump out from behind the pillar, still holding your pose, to see how close the asker got. Then switch roles and try again. The person who gets closest to their opponent’s pose is the winner.
  • Create your own Chatterbox (originally pioneered by SoulPancake): Fill a small space with many balloons and two chairs. Then, invite people to take a seat and make a friend. Write questions on the balloons to prompt conversation. For example, a prompt could be to name one thing on your bucket list or find one thing in common with the person you're talking to.
  • Go Indie. Set up a temporary alternate path down a hallway. This works particularly well if you set an Indiana Jones adventure theme and encourage people to balance on a line or beam to avoid lava, dodge dangerous skipping-rope snakes and crawl under crepe paper vines.

Curious about what else goes into a recipe for urban play? Want to take a serving home? Check out my thesis, linked in my bio below. How do you think we can be better at incorporating play into our school communities to promote staff wellness? Post your ideas in the comments below!



Gabrielle Donoff is a Research Assistant with the PLACE Research Lab team. You can read her full thesis for her Master in City Planning designation from the University of Manitoba for more information on her work:

Donoff, Gabrielle. (2014). Plan for a playful city: A typology of ludic ways to increase pedestrian activity. Master’s Thesis, Department of City Planning, University of Manitoba. Available online:

The PLACE Research Lab Team

To say that this team knows how to have fun would be a huge understatement. They’re the exact opposite of the Fun Police, spending their time working to understand how where we live, work and play influence our behaviours. These magic makers, a.k.a. the PLACE Research Lab Team, work to understand how we can transform the spaces in our everyday into amazing places for everyone to have fun, while being healthy at the same time.