City-wide playtime should be a post-pandemic goal says design critic

Post-pandemic, design critic Alexandra Lange wants to see city-wide, street-based events given priority. Children need the freedom to play safely this summer — and beyond.
Children and adults play with bubbles in Bryant Park in Manhattan, New York City in May 2021. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Originally aired June 13, 2021.

After over a year of online schooling, missed friends, cancelled sports, closed playgrounds, and hundreds of days spent indoors, Alexandra Lange wants to let kids lead the way this summer. 

Lange, a design critic and author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, says making space for play is important right now.

"I feel like the bottom line of what the pandemic and the quarantine have denied a lot of people are those moments of, like, coming together and joy. And play just seems like this shortcut to us getting back into it and being able to use those muscles again," Lange said in an interview with Tapestry host Mary Hynes. 

Lange drew inspiration from "Playday on the Parkway," an event hosted along Philadelphia's Benjamin Franklin Parkway during the United States Bicentennial in 1976. 

"On July 5, they had basically play stations at every corner all down the parkway. Including giant pick-up sticks, including a Jamaican steel band, including Frisbee Golf, and paper airplanes. So if you were a Philadelphian, you could stroll down the parkway and basically, like, find a fun play activity for, you know, every taste," she said.

"I felt like it showed how central play was to the idea of freedom, in this case American freedom. Like we don't often see children's needs and what would be fun for children placed so centrally in a city, and as part of like this huge national celebration. So I just felt like that event showed a city getting its priorities right."

Freedom and childhood

Lange says freedom is a missing element in modern childhood. 

"For too long, society, politics, the way our cities are structured, have assumed that children are being fully taken care of by schools and existing playgrounds. And that's just not true. They don't have freedom, they've been given these, like, bounded areas and said, 'okay you can do whatever you want in here for these hours.' And if you start to think of children, like, as a class that needs to be protected, you know, like, children's rights are civil rights, then you think, 'oh, they really haven't been given equal access, we're not designing streets that are safe for children'," she said. 

"Who are we trying to bring up to lead these cities? Who are we trying to bring up, you know, to be individuals that are embedded in their communities? And how can we do that if they're limited to these very small spaces?"

Alexandra Lange is a design critic and author of The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids. (Mark Wickens)

Lange stresses that it's not just children who benefit from playtime. She says it's through moments of fun and shared delight that we can relate to one another. 

"The truth is, all of these things are actually fun for adults too. People don't like to deny children fun. So I feel like if you make fun for children, what you're actually doing is making fun for whole families, for the community."

As individuals, communities, and countries begin to imagine life post-pandemic, Lange says she would like to see changes that go beyond addressing kids' immediate needs. 

"I feel like there are things that, you know, we as a culture have had to examine during this time. And it would be nice to think that there could be, like, some self reflection that would lead to positive results for children, you know, in particular, coming out of this," she said. 

"They've been denied so much — can we give them back more than they had before?"

Written and produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke.