10-20-20 | Department

Integrating Play into Trails

The Value of Play

Stepping stones set off from the main trail provide a playful element at Australia's Sydney Park bio-retention wetland that attracts children for an opportunity to connect with nature. The Natural Learning Initiative,, a research and professional development unit at the College of Design, NC State University, raises awareness on the benefits of incorporating play into trails and pathway networks that are generally focused on adults. Photography by Sara Reilly
Connecting park users to the different playground destinations is a wide multi-use path running through the forest at Founder's Park in The Woodlands Hills community in Texas.
The Tanglefoot Trail is a 43.6-mile rails-to-trails greenway that cuts through six small communities in the rural landscape of Mississippi, offering residents recreational opportunities.

While playgrounds can usually be seen full of kids and families at this time of year, the ongoing health pandemic has closed many outdoor play areas across the country to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Looking for other outlets, many families have turned to trails as an alternative outdoor space to be active while staying safe. Due to this, trail usage has surged with a nationwide increase of nearly 200% compared to last year, according to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors.

In Minnesota, the Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources states trail use has been 50% to 100% higher than the annual average, depending on the week, since their stay-at-home order went into effect on March 27 to slow the spread of the disease.

In the midst of closures in New York, a 3.6-mile shared-use path opened, one of the longest of its kind in the nation, according to the state. The 12-foot-wide, shared bicycle and pedestrian path crosses the Hudson River and features six scenic overlooks, digital kiosks, interpretive signage and public art.

Although trail popularity has increased as of recently, a publication prepared by the Natural Learning Initiative, Pathways for Play: Best Practice Guidelines, by American Trails and sponsored by PlayCore, states how typically only a small minority of children and families actually use pathways as the creation of most trails does not put a focus on children.

According to the report, pathways are defined as a general class of nonmotorized, active transportation infrastructure, including trails, sidewalks, footpaths, greenways, bikeways, promenades, esplanades, and shared-use pathways. Pathway networks are a system of interconnected pathways that allow for active transportation between a point of origin and appropriate destinations.

While Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux first introduced the idea of shared-use recreational pathways in 1866 with a network of wide, tree-lined avenues that would cut across the grid of Brooklyn, New York, connecting its open spaces, the report promotes the importance of incorporating play in pathway networks to engage and benefit children and families.

The purpose of Pathways for Play is to integrate play - critical for children's health, into walkable, bikeable, shared-use community pathway networks infused with "play pockets" providing opportunities for playing along the way.
The publication states a play pocket covers all forms of spaces and facilities identifiable by children and caregivers as play environments integral to playful pathways and may contain a mix of natural, living, and manufactured elements, varying in size and complexity. Physical activity can be achieved through innovative play pockets that engage the whole family while learning can be promoted through visible adventure and exploration in nature.
Other benefits described by designing play in pathways are:

Extending play value
Extending the types of play (especially in the physical and socio-dramatic domain) afforded by a continuous, complex, linear space where nature is omnipresent.

Enabling health promotion
Enabling kids and families to get outdoors, enjoy the fresh air, and experience meaningful physical activity on foot, bicycle, or wheeled toys.

Expanding inclusion
Expanding possibilities for people of all abilities, ages, and backgrounds to engage in playful interactions with each other and their surroundings, which continuously afford play opportunities as children and other users move along.

Engaging with nature
Providing a multitude of opportunities for interacting playfully with a wide diversity of plants and animals through the seasons.

Reinforcing environmental literacy
Benefiting from the learning opportunities afforded by pathways integrated with a "green infrastructure" of stream and river corridors and vegetation patches, transecting local habitats, exposing natural and sociocultural history of former land uses.

Walkable, bikeable community connectivity
Encouraging nonmotorized travel from home to local recreational and cultural destinations, thereby reducing both traffic and the carbon footprint.

Growing community social capital
Bringing residents together through shared lifestyle experiences focused on children and a sense of building healthy communities together.

Pathways for Play states it is also an educational resource, designed to help professionals and community activists involved in planning, designing, and promoting playful pathways to increasingly make pathways more playful, usable, and attractive to children and families - in two possible ways: a) by upgrading existing systems, or b) by planning and designing new systems.

To read the full guide for best practice design principles, implementation planning strategies, case studies, and more, go to


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