Something that I have learned through my time as a teacher, parent and researcher is that children will generally take a different route through a space than an adult if they have the option. They will find the alternate path, the secret path, the one that may not even be visible to the adult, but all children know it is there.
It is important when designing spaces for children that there are always alternative and interesting paths. It could look like steppers or a log through a garden, a sequence of rocks, a thin trail of pebbles or rocks or a tunnel made through some bushes.
In an early years service or school where children spend every day, it is special for them to have secret paths and options for navigating the space that suit their play. Different paths also can influence and inspire imaginative play in the children. They could go through a cave, over rocks in a river, drive on a busy road in their car, or spaceship…. Alternatives lead to possibilities.
Quite often these paths are created by the children over time and are not planned. These paths gives clues to the educators on how the children play and also to the designer on how to improve the space. These paths often occur near the entrance at a door onto grass or between popular play areas. Where possible the designer and educators should honour the children’s choice or path and work on ways to make the path work. This might be filling a channel worn through grass with crushed gravel to make a stronger path, placing a beam or log in position, or just leaving the space as it is, if it is not damaging the growth of the grass, changing the aesthetics or effecting the safety.
When adding elements and play zones to a space always give thought to how the children will access that space and which pathways they might use. You can add a path when installing the space to give cues to the children on how to get there. This might save wear of your ground covers.
Below is a design of a Childscapes nature play area and i have highlighted in orange the possible flow of children through the space. This space is in an area that caters for over 100 children at a time, so it is important to create many paths and flows so children can move freely without bumping into each other. The play zones are also broken up into quiet, active, and sensory spaces with thought given to the older more active children having more active paths and younger children having quieter areas and smaller paths away from the action.