Play Sufficiency

Play Sufficiency and the Child Friendly City

Wednesday November 29, 2023

Play sufficiency is key to efforts to create truly child friendly towns, cities and communities? We hope this blog makes a strong argument.

Play Sufficiency is Key to Child Friendly Cities, Towns and Communities

Unicef’s Child Friendly Cities & Communities programme works with local government organisations to embed children’s rights into practice1. This rights-based approach refers to the freedoms and provisions all children are entitled to as young human beings. Of all the rights enshrined in the UNCRC2, children’s right to play is one of the most easily overlooked, undervalued, and often undermined3. This is true of children’s play in the public realm4 and in schools5. Children’s right to play is rarely seen as a policy priority, despite children consistently placing it at the top of what matters to them6. Changing this situation requires adults to radically rethink our values about children, their childhoods and their play4.

Playing and Being Well4, an in-depth literature review of research into children’s play, evidences the intimate connection between play and well-being through a ‘relational capabilities’ approach. In brief, a relational capabilities approach recognises well-being as an ongoing process that emerges through encounters between people and their environments. Playing, as a predominantly joyful act, animates public space, enlivens bodies, creates attachments, makes life more vibrant and interesting, and engenders positive feelings which influence how people feel in the moment and in the future.

Children embody a particularly powerful instinct to play where they continuously seek out opportunities to experience the pleasure of playing with associated benefits in terms of being well. However, children’s capability to play (and generate well-being through doing so) is shaped by the relationships they have with other people and the spatial conditions of their everyday lives. Given the benefits of play, it follows that not playing (or having insufficient opportunities to play), would be detrimental to the wellbeing of children and their communities. This includes concerns associated with increased rates of childhood obesity, lack of physical fitness and poor mental health.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends principle of play sufficiency

Governmental support for children’s play should be based on the principle of sufficiency. In the UK, both Wales and Scotland have introduced legal play sufficiency duties on local authorities. There are also other cities (for example Leeds7 and Dublin in Ireland8), and smaller settlements (including rural communities in Wales9) adopting and working with the concept at a more local level. Such examples illustrate the potential of play sufficiency to offer an organising principle for the development of more child-friendly communities and organisations10, as well as being a powerful policy instrument for upholding children’s rights. In all such cases hyperlocal research with children has been a catalyst for change across multiple levels of policy and practice11.

Spatial and societal changes over the past 50 years have served to constrain children’s freedom of movement and made it more difficult for parents to allow their children out to play12,13,14. Whilst the contributing factors are many, two of the more influential have been increases in traffic15,16 and the loss of playable public space17,18,19. Such issues affect people living in both rural and urban communities20,21,22, and together erode opportunities for incidental interactions amongst residents, thereby increasing fears associated with people who are less well known15,21,23. Compared to previous generations, children today (on average) spend less time playing outside24,25, have reduced roaming distances26,27,28, and experience autonomy in the public realm at a later age28,29. However, where environmental conditions work in support of children’s everyday freedoms and present a variety of opportunities for play, children continue to play out from a relatively young age30,31,32.

Play Sufficiency

Play sufficiency is therefore a matter of spatial justice

Working towards children having fair and just access to time, space and permission for play. This is about cultivating the conditions for children’s play to flourish, in local neighbourhoods, in schools, and throughout the wider public realm. The principle of play sufficiency challenges notions of play as a time and space bound activity, moving adult responsibilities beyond narrow definitions of play provision, towards a more collective and comprehensive response. Such an approach requires adults to take account of children’s everyday experiences of playing and how these are shaped by, and can shape, the context in which children live4.

Given the diversity of children’s lives and the myriad factors that influence their opportunities for play, this adult account-ability is reliant upon hyperlocal research with children; recognising that children hold intimate knowledge about their local environments, which they experience differently to adults. The insights generated can help adults rethink their collective response-abilities towards children, revealing ways in which things can be done differently, whilst also re-enchanting adult connections to childhood play11. This play sufficiency research can also be used to establish and evidence performance indicators associated with creating more child-friendly environments.

Committing to the principle of play sufficiency legitimises play as an outcome, justifies time spent supporting play, requires a broad range of professionals to give consideration to play and elevates the status of play alongside other strategic priorities. By prioritising play and positioning play as central to our thinking, we can ensure children and their way of engaging with the world (what they do and how they do it) has much greater influence over how we govern and the types of environments we create for people. Play sufficiency provides a mechanism for local governments to deliver on their child-friendly intentions by orientating their ways of working towards children’s agenda of playing.

References and end notes

  2. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. It sets out the rights of every young person aged 17 and under.
  3. UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013) General Comment 17 on the Right of the Child to Rest, Leisure, Play, Recreational Activities, Cultural Life and the Arts (art. 31), Geneva: United Nations.
  4. Russell, Barclay and Tawil (2023) Playing and Being Well: A review of recent research into children’s play, social policy and practice, with a focus on Wales. Cardiff: Play Wales.
  5. Ardelean, A., Smith, K. and Russell, W. (2021) The Case for Play in Schools: A review of the literature. Bristol: OPAL.
  6. Children’s Commissioner for England (2021) The Big Ask: The big answers.
  7. See the Leeds Play Sufficiency ‘X’ (formally Twitter) account.
  8. See Dublin’s latest Play Strategy.
  9. Barclay and Tawil (2023) Assessing and securing play sufficiency in three rural Welsh communities, Wales: Ludicology.
  10. Tawil, B. and Barclay, M. (2020) Play Sufficiency as an Organising Principle of Community Development, in Beck, D. and Purcell, R. (eds) Community Development for Social Change, New York: Routledge, pp. 198-206.
  11. Russell, W., Barclay, M., Tawil, B. and Derry, C. (2020) Making it Possible to do Play Sufficiency: Exploring the conditions that support local authorities to secure sufficient opportunities for children in Wales to play, Cardiff: Play Wales.
  12. Karsten, L. (2005) It All Used to be Better? Different generations on continuity and change in urban children’s daily use of space, Children’s Geographies, 3(3), pp. 275-290;
  13. Loebach, J., Sanches, M., Jaffe, J. and Elton-Marshall, T. (2021) Paving the Way for Outdoor Play: Examining socioenvironmental barriers to community-based outdoor play, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(7), 3617.
  14. Woolley, H.E. and Griffin, E. (2015) Decreasing Experiences of Home Range, Outdoor Spaces, Activities and Companions: Changes across three generations in Sheffield in north England, Children’s Geographies, 13(6), pp. 677-691.
  15. Hart, J. and Parkhurst, G. (2011) Driven to Excess: Impacts of motor vehicles on the quality of life of residents of three streets in Bristol UK, World Transport Policy and Practice, 17(2), pp. 12-30.
  16. Wood, J., Bornat, D. and Bicquelet-Lock, A. (2019) Child Friendly Planning in the UK: A review, APiC, ZCD Architects and RTPI.
  17. Chapman, A. (2022) Exposed: The collapse of green space provision in England and Wales, New Economics Foundation, 3 May,
  18. Hart, R. (2014) Children, Self-governance and Citizenship, in Burke, C. and Jones, K. (eds) Education, childhood and anarchism: Talking Colin Ward, London: Routledge, pp. 123-138.
  19. Layard, A. (2019) Privatising Land in England, Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law, 11(2), pp. 151-168.
  20. Holt, N.L., Neely, K.C., Spence, J.C., Carson, V., Pynn, S.R., Boyd, K.A., Ingstrup, M. and Robinson, Z. (2016) An Intergenerational Study of Perceptions of Changes in Active Free Play among Families from Rural Areas of Western Canada, BMC Public Health, 16, 829.
  21. Lee, H., Tamminen, K.A., Clark, A.M., Slater, L., Spence, J.C. and Holt, N.L. (2015) A Meta-study of Qualitative Research Examining Determinants of Children’s Independent Active Free Play, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 12(1), pp. 1-12.
  22. Powell, M.A., Taylor, N. and Smith, A.B., 2013. Constructions of rural childhood: challenging dominant perspectives. Children’s Geographies, 11(1), pp.117-131.
  23. Russell, W. and Stenning, A. (2021) Beyond Active Travel: Children, play and community on streets during and after the coronavirus lockdown, Cities and Health, 5(sup1), S196-S199.
  24. Larouche, R., Garriguet, D. and Tremblay, M.S. (2017) Outdoor Time, Physical Activity and Sedentary Time among Young Children: The 2012-2013 Canadian Health Measures Survey, Canadian Journal of Public Health, 107(6), e500–e506.
  25. Mullan, K. (2019) A Child’s Day: Trends in time use in the UK from 1975 to 2015, The British Journal of Sociology, 70(3), pp. 997-1024.
  26. Gill, T. (2021) Urban Playground: How child-friendly planning and design can save cities, London: RIBA.
  27. Malone, K. and Rudner, J. (2016) Child-Friendly and Sustainable Cities: Exploring global studies on children’s freedom, mobility, and risk, in Freeman C., Tranter P. and Skelton T. (eds) Risk, Protection, Provision and Policy, Geographies of Children and Young People, vol 12. Singapore: Springer, pp. 345-370.
  28. Shaw, B., Bicket, M., Elliott, B.,Fagan-Watson, B. and Mocca, E. with Mayer Hillman (2015) Children’s Independent Mobility: An international comparison and recommendations for action, London: Policy Studies Institute.
  29. Dodd, H.F., FitzGibbon, L., Watson, B.E. and Nesbit, R.J. (2021) Children’s Play and Independent Mobility in 2020: Results from the British Children’s Play Survey, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18, 4334.
  30. Barclay, M. and Tawil, B. (2021) Understanding the Play Experiences of Children with Protected Characteristics, Wales: Ludicology.
  31. Loebach, J. and Gilliland, G. (2016a) Neighbourhood Play on the Endangered List: Examining patterns in children’s local activity and mobility using GPS monitoring and qualitative GIS, Children’s Geographies, 14950, pp. 573-589.
  32. Wales, M., Mårtensson, F. and Jansson, M. (2021) ‘You Can Be Outside a Lot’: Independent mobility and agency among children in a suburban community in Sweden, Children’s Geographies, 19(2), pp. 184-196.

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