Improving satisfaction with opportunities for play at local neighbourhood level benefits everybody. Neighbourhoods where families can come together and play make for great communities, and communities where children can play out with their friends tend to feel safe, vibrant and welcoming – communities, where it’s most likely people, will know one another and ‘rub along’ well-enough. Get opportunities for play right and it’s very likely the rest will follow.
Why play matters to children
It’s inescapable to notice that children are playful. As humans we’ve developed a playful disposition in our youth, for many, this still persists in some form as we get older. For children though, playing represents their main form of participation in everyday life and it’s central to their experience and enjoyment of living. Play is not a frivolous, infantile pastime but an essential aspect of human life. Play has unique behavioural qualities perfectly suited to the creation of experiences that are essential to children’s immediate and longer-term well-being and development. However, children’s time and space for playing is too often limited by that which is seen to be more important. Playing is central to a good childhood and must be given as much attention as other priorities.
Children are capable of being highly competent players. We regularly find examples where children and parents report good degrees of satisfaction with opportunities for playing. It is though, all too common for us to hear from children and parents who report that opportunities for playing are constrained in neighbourhoods where the dominant conditions are not supportive of children’s need and right to play.
Why play matters to everyone
Most children or adults we talk to as part of our research think it’s reasonable that children should be able to play out, free from adult accompaniment, by around the age of eight. Prior to that age it’s reasonable to expect parents would like to accompany their children to places for playing, organise play dates or provide oversight when children are playing in the garden/yard or street outside their homes. As children’s experience of the community and their competence and confidence develop, the reigns of parental control and oversight loosen. This process of gradually increasing children’s choice and freedom of movement is what characterises growth and development through childhood, bringing both pleasure and pride to parents and children alike.
However, we routinely meet children (both younger and older) who tell us that they rarely leave the home environment after school, seldom are they able to play out with friends. Parents also report being too fearful for their children’s safety to permit playing out, even though they desperately want to be able to. This simply isn’t good enough. Children have a right to play, as adults we know they need to be able to play. We understand playing is the way children foster relationships, learn about themselves and others, practice skills, learn to roll with the punches, burn off steam and get exercise, and perhaps most importantly have fun. Playing makes children happier people, and we all want that. As adults we have a responsibility to do something to improve this situation.
Fortunately, it is possible to change these conditions for the better and to ensure our neighbourhoods and the facilities within them are fit for children, fit for playing. This will involve working out what would need to happen to adult practices, service delivery and neighbourhood design in order that children might be able to experience greater freedom. It will involve, working together with other community partners to address these concerns and may ultimately involve the re-shaping of neighbourhood design and the development of services and spaces so that they are more in tune with children’s drive to play. Perhaps most comfortingly we consistently find that neighbourhoods and communities that work for children, work equally well for adults.
Why Play Sufficiency is the answer
If you want to make sure children in your community have enough time and space to play, a play sufficiency assessment might be the place to start. Provision of designated spaces for play in local communities has often been informed by public open space assessments. These assessments categorise and quantify different types of space, but traditionally they have paid little attention to children’s actual use of space and many of the space’s children use for play fall outside of the remit of these types of assessments.
Research must be carried out to establish children’s actual access to and use of space beyond (but also including) formally recognised public open spaces. This includes, the scrappy bits of land children value, their tendency to use the edges of space rather than large open areas and their use of streets, car parks and other civic spaces. We know from our research that children value having access to a variety of spaces in which they can have different types of play experiences. Whilst traditional fixed equipment playgrounds have become an important feature of many neighbourhoods and are often highly valued by the children and parents who use them, they alone rarely provide for all of children’s play needs.
Researching play engages with children on their terms, enabling them to share with adults the rich knowledge they have about the places where they live and play. This information can be used to both inform and evaluate designs and other interventions. When planning and or developing opportunities for play we should endeavour to design and facilitate neighbourhoods that children can get around easily and include a wide range of possibilities for play. Some of these possibilities may be well designed, designated spaces for play, whilst others may be more subtle and incidental features within the wider public realm.
Ensuring children can access the opportunities available in their immediate environments requires adults to pay attention to other issues that may constrain children’s time and permission for play. This includes adult fears about safety and litigation, other obligations on children’s time, increases in the amount and speed of traffic, restrictions on access to and use of land, and the attitudes of other residents.
A localised play sufficiency assessment generates detailed evidence to inform strategic approaches to play and urban planning at a neighbourhood level. This strategic, evidence-based approach ensures efficient and effective targeted use of resources and encourages partnership working. The actions then taken may include changes to policy, practice, service provision and the built environment; with the ultimate aim of cultivating more favourable conditions for play across the local community.
An essential part of this process is the active involvement of community stakeholders (including children and parents) in exploring opportunities for play within the local community. This includes the identification of examples where things are working, for who and why and also where things were not so good and the reasons for this. In doing so the assessment highlights local assets that need to be maintained, protected or improved as well as issues that need to be addressed.
Whether you are a community activist, town or community councillor, concerned parent or adult resident, commissioning a localised play sufficiency assessment can provide a basis for thinking about:
- the way adult actions influence children’s opportunities for play
- how services in the community for children are working and how they might work better
- how the ways our communities are designed influences children’s ability to play, and;
- what changes could be made and how they might be made to better enable children’s right to play.