Fenced-in Playgrounds

How boundaries can encourage greater creativity

A team of landscape architects conducted a simple study to observe any physical and psychological influences of having a fence around a playground, and how its consequent effects would impact preschool children.

By observing teachers and their students on a playground surrounded by a fence, and on a comparable playground with no fence, the researchers found a striking difference in how the children interacted in the space.

On playgrounds without fences, the children tended to gather around the teacher, and were reluctant to stray far from her view. On playgrounds that were fenced in, however, they ran all around the entire playground, feeling more free to explore.

The researchers concluded that with a boundary, in this case a fence, children felt more at ease to explore the space.


There is an interesting parallel with the physical constraints of a fenced-in playground, and constraints in user-centered design.

Blue sky brainstorms, popular at many organizations, encourage new idea generation with no limits and anything is possible. This type of brainstorming can result in all sorts of shiny new ideas — but they may not be helpful or useful for their customers, and therefore likely will not be used. Having constraints can actually improve creativity, by providing some boundaries to work in and specific problems to solve.

User-centered design is problem solving for people, balancing constraints and requirements. Understand the context that people are using your product in, and exploiting both natural and artificial constraints can help ensure the user only does the right thing. As designers, it’s essential to make it easy for users to accomplish what they need to, and keep them on the happy path.

People have limitations in their daily lives as they’re using your products — they may not have much time to check credit card statements, or may lose internet connection while trying to stream videos on their commute, or may only access your website from their phone. These constraints of time, connectivity, and screen sizes are examples of real factors to understand how people will use your product, and how to design within that context.

Instead of pushing creative teams to think outside the box, consider what’s best for the user and what constraints they face, and create a new playground where they feel comfortable to explore.

but don’t get stuck!