Play sufficiency: a case study
Play sufficiency is about making sure children have enough time, space and permission to play. Play sufficiency assessment involves researching the extent and quality of children’s opportunities for play, helping us understand the variety of factors that influence whether children get enough play. Factors that support play are assets to be protected and factors that constrain play are issues to be addressed. Play sufficiency research enables the development of evidence-based, strategic and sustainable local action plans, aimed at creating more favourable conditions for play. This strategic, evidence-based approach ensures efficient and effective targeted use of resources and encourages partnership working. Ultimately, the purpose is more children playing, more of the time. This ensures levels of satisfaction are maintained and improved.
Researching play sufficiency in Merthyr Tydfil
In a small-scale research project commissioned by Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, we explored the sufficiency of opportunities for play amongst various groups of children.
The Welsh Play Sufficiency Duty (Welsh Government, 2014)1 recognises that certain groups of children may experience different challenges in accessing their right to play as a result of their particular protected characteristics. Matter B of the Wales Play Sufficiency Duty requires local authorities to develop an understanding of how they might best provide for a diverse range of children and childhood experiences. We designed a research project to capture examples of experiences above and beyond the general experiences of children captured in Merthyr Tydfil’s previous play sufficiency research and to address the lack of research evidence about the play needs and preferences, opportunities and experiences of particular groups of children.
We used the same ecological systems approach and creative mapping methods as we had in Merthyr Tydfil’s 2019 Play Sufficiency Assessment, considering the affordances for play presented by the home/family environment, and the child’s local neighbourhood, and opportunities available more widely across the county borough (although the latter are not a feature of this blog). At each level of analysis, the following three lines of enquiry were investigated to establish how physical and social factors coalesced to affect children’s day-to-day play experiences:
- Time – how often and how much time children spend playing
- Space – within children’s locality, its accessibility for children and the ‘play value’ of that space
- Attitudes – of children, parents, other residents and people whose work impacts on children
These lines of enquiry were explored using an adapted version of Kytta’s (2004)2 fields of action model to consider how different conditions affect children’s ability to actualise (make real use of) potential possibilities for play, where:
- A constrained field (red) refers to time, space or attitudes that prevent children from accessing opportunities for self-directed action (i.e., play)
- Promoted fields (amber) are those that regulate children’s action (they promote particular forms of behaviour)
- Free fields (green) are those that allow for children’s free action (play).
Due to multiple constraining parameters, it was not possible to include children spanning all the various identified protected characteristics, so the research investigated the play experiences of:
- Children engaged in Barnardos’ service for Young Carers
- Children from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities who all attended the same secondary school
- Children for whom English is an additional language (EAL), who were being supported by the local authority’s EAL service
- Children attending the local authority’s pupil referral unit
- Children living in a rurally isolated community
Play sufficiency of children living in a rurally isolated community
There were significant differences in the experiences of play across the different groups. The group of children living in a rurally isolated community demonstrated what can only be described as the best example of play sufficiency we have ever found in our research.
Here is a summary of what we found.
Time for play
Children in this group played out regularly, as a minimum, three days a week, with the majority reporting five to seven times a week. All children played out at the weekends and had mostly free (green) time.
Out of school sport activities (most often rugby) were identified as amber (so not the same as playing out) and chores were carried out by the majority of children, mostly twice a week, but these happened alongside playing out. Only in one case were these activities substantial enough in duration and number to significantly reduce time for playing out.
One child attended eight structured activities across five weekdays plus a rugby game on Sundays – this child told us they struggled integrating with other children outside of school. All of these children identified watching TV, YouTube, playing on phones or computer games most days but this was usually in addition to playing out with friends, not instead of. Whilst these children did spend some of their time everyday playing on electronic devices, they did not identify them when asked about where they play. Playing out represents a significant proportion of these children’s everyday lives.
Playing close to home and in the local area
All the children in this group had the freedom of movement to access multiple spaces for play either close to home or in their local area.
The spaces they played were a mixture of formally designated spaces, streets, other public places and natural wilderness areas. Most children could identify at least ten different places by name, with the highest number of spaces identified being sixteen. Some of the spaces children identified included: the rec, bottom park, top park, top shop, top of the village, bog’s pond, Taff’s field, the cricket field, the footy pitch, the haunted house, the steps, the bars, lion’s rock, the forest, sandy bay and the river.
The children’s ability to name the areas they play suggests a strong and long-lived community play culture, where even simple features like some steps with handrails hold significant cultural value as places for meeting up and playing. The strength of this play culture was born out in conversations with teachers who could also name the places children played and many of whom could recall having played there themselves.
Teachers told us that many people here know one another and look out for each other, children play out from an early age so come to know their community and the people in it well. Only one child told us they couldn’t play independently in all the places they would like. This child was fond of playing at a farm but could only go accompanied by an adult and this just wasn’t always possible. All the other children reported being allowed to play in all the places they liked to.
Both boys and girls appeared to be playing in a similar number of spaces and enjoying similar levels of freedom of movement, outside of school. One child identified three spaces in the local area where they played with adult accompaniment. This child wasn’t suggesting they would like to play in these places independently but couldn’t, rather they were new to the community and were not yet confident to go unaccompanied. Equally this child anticipated that in the not-too-distant future they would be using these spaces independently and with friends.
References to playing at home were limited to individual mentions of homes and garden (if available), in sharp contrast to children in some of the other groups we did research with, who often-listed multiple spaces within their homes and gardens when asked about where they play.
Furthermore, no children in this group when asked about where they play, identified screen-based activity, again in significant contrast to some of the other groups. Finally, it is interesting to note that only one child identified playing at a friend’s house. Perhaps this is another reflection of a strong culture of playing out and again, is in contrast to the experiences of some of the other groups we talked to.
Play in school
Break times for this group of children appear to present significantly improved opportunities for boy’s play in comparison to girls, a finding recurrent in much research on school playtimes.
Boys identified break and lunchtime in school as green (a field of free action supportive of their play), whereas the majority of girls identified them as red or amber (fields of action either where many choices are constrained or where particular choices are promoted).
The majority of children from this, and the other four groups, identify lesson time as red. There are exceptions and for the rurally isolated children, these included P.E., routinely identified as amber, and ‘Funky Friday’, a time given over to children’s choice of activity, again described as amber because children still identified there were constraints on what they could do. These examples illustrate how small attitudinal shifts and the relaxing of particular constraints by adults is recognised and valued by children and does contribute to their overall experience of play sufficiency.
People’s attitudes and associated issues influencing play
This group could both identify a range of different people and issues influencing their play and describe how. Boys reported that teachers encouraged playing out.
However, both girls and boys also reported that teachers can constrain play by banning games or preventing access to space in school. Girls and boys also identified a lack of sufficient space in school, which meant football often dominated the space available.
Children did report sometimes not being allowed out to play by parents but more generally talked about their parents encouraging playing out. Neither boys nor girls identified any problems with older children/teenagers, strangers or ‘druggies’ -children knew who these people were but were able to avoid them. Any other constraints imposed by other people were occasional and had no perceived detrimental effect on their opportunities for play. However, playing was not without its challenges.
Girls from this group reported experiencing issues with other children, particularly in terms of falling out with friends and harassment via social media/phones. Boys did not report such concerns, but they did identify the speed of traffic as a problem and traffic calming measures as a potential improvement. Litter, broken glass, dog poo, overgrown brambles, as well as old and rusty play equipment were identified as significant problems by both girls and boys. The girls also asked for a greater range of equipment in their local play areas, shelter from the rain, a tree swing and more paths through ‘the forest’.
Discussion of findings
Perhaps most significantly, in terms of the different children involved in this research (and ironically in respect of this particular groups’ protective characteristics), children from the rurally isolated community lived close to each other in the same community, making it easier for them to meet up outside of school without the need for formal arrangement or adult support. Whilst the community itself may be seen as isolated from other parts of the county borough, the children themselves are not isolated from one another. Equally, the spatial and psychological assets of this particular community are, for the most part, supportive of these children experiencing a sufficiency of opportunities for play.
The combination of three well located designated play areas, set within more natural surroundings, incorporating or adjacent to sport facilities, together with other incidental features throughout the community and areas of wilderness in close proximity to homes, all made accessible by a network of formal and informal footpaths and pavements, makes for a rich and varied web of opportunities for play. The location, layout and topography of the community results in relatively low traffic volumes and speed. This, together with a long history and culture of playing out and a strong sense of community security born out of people knowing each other, results in a culture of permissiveness, where children are encouraged to play out together.
There appears to be few factors constraining children’s freedom of movement or access to opportunities for play, low level tensions exist amongst peers and between children and adults, but these were never registered as concerning enough that they disrupt children’s opportunities for play. Here, children have a rich variety of play experiences, play out often and have much to talk about both in terms of their existing opportunities and things that get in the way or could be made better. The opposite is true of children who have limited and uninspiring opportunities.
Over and above their recommendations for improved care and maintenance of parks, the single strongest issue that emerged was the possibility to improve school playtimes and the group for whom this would have the most dramatic improvement would be the girls, although from our experience when good school play improvement programmes are implemented everybody sees benefits.
1 Welsh Government (2014) Wales – a Play Friendly Country, Cardiff: Welsh Government.
2 Kyttä, M. (2004) The Extent of Children’s Independent Mobility and the Number of Actualized Affordances as Criteria for Child-friendly Environments, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, pp. 179-198.