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Children's interactions with water in city centres: A case study from Sheffield, UK


Children of all ages readily perceive the affordances water offers for active and passive interaction in public spaces

This research focused on two related goals – one dealing with the method and the other dealing with knowledge relating to children’s water play in public open spaces. While many studies have investigated children’s experiences of outdoor environments, no research prior to this study focused specifically on children’s interactions with water in a constructed public space. Additionally, data-collection tools used in previous research for recording children’s play behaviors are not suitable for recording and mapping children’s interactions with water in a public space. A new tool was thus developed. This tool – referred to as the “Tool for Observing Water Experiences of Children” (TOWEC) – includes a set of behavioral codes relating to both passive and active interactions with water. Active interactions include such activities as walking in the water, throwing sticks in the water, and feeding animals in the water. Passive interactions include listening to the water, observing water features, and sitting near the water. The TOWEC instrument also includes codes for age, gender, and ethnicity of the children and a system for recording time, temperature, and weather details.

The TOWEC was first field tested and then used as an observational mapping tool to record and map children’s water-related activities in the Peace Gardens in the city center of Sheffield, UK. The water features in this park were not designed for children to play in, but children started to take advantage of the play opportunities of the water jets and other water features almost immediately after the Peace Gardens were open to the public.

Researchers conducted observations of children interacting with water in the Peace Gardens six times in different seasons over a period of one year. The data collected and analyzed for this study was based on 3,399 observations. More females than males were observed in the Peace Gardens. Almost all of the children were attracted to water features, and there were no real differences in the way males and females interacted with the water. There were differences in age groups, however. Younger children (age 0-9) tended to engage in more active interactions with water, while older children (age 10-18) engaged in more passive interactions. Type of interaction – passive or active – was directly related to areas occupied by the different age groups. Young children occupied the places closest to the water. Older children tended to sit on grass or benches where they could be close to but not right next to the water features. While some studies indicate that ethnicity plays a role in the way children interact with water, this study showed no difference by ethnic groups. Weather conditions affected both interaction and spatial occupancy. In colder weather, both active and passive interactions with water rapidly decreased. In warmer weather, the older children tended to move closer to the water features.

This research indicates that children of all ages readily perceive the affordances water offers for active and passive interaction. Designers and managers of public spaces would do well to take this into consideration as they make decisions about features to include in open spaces.


Bozkurt, M., Woolley, H., Dempsey, N., (2018). Children's interactions with water in city centres: A case study from Sheffield, UK. Landscape Research


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