The role of public place in supporting child’s right to play

Thursday February 24, 2022

Playing is the process by which children experience their lives and how they express themselves and their agency in whatever context they may be. As such, play is central to children’s experience and enjoyment of living. But public space in the UK is not often designed with play in mind, curtailing children’s opportunity, and space to play in the public realm.

Why play?

Playing brings about a whole range of immediate and deferred benefits and it does so due to its unique behavioural characteristics (personal control, intrinsic motivation, flexibility and variability, pretence and the creation of the sense of uncertainty). When children play these behavioural characteristics work in concert generating relational experiences with people and place. These playful encounters provide opportunities for children to express and refine their adaptive capacities affecting their immediate experiences of being alive and their orientation to future life (Lester and Russell, 2010).

“So long as their basic rights to survival are met, children will continuously seek out opportunities for play.”

For children, playing represents their main form of participation in everyday life. Children will play wherever and whenever they can, and we see evidence of this where moments of play emerge in-between the adult organisation of time and space (Russell et al, 2019). So long as their basic rights to survival are met, children will continuously seek out opportunities for play. However, those opportunities and children’s ability to access them depends on much more than those which children have control over (Barclay and Tawil, 2015 and Tawil and Barclay, 2018).

Children’s right to play

Every child has the right to relax, play and take part in a wide range of cultural and artistic activities – Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). As young humans, children have rights which are enshrined in the UNCRC. Those rights are concerned with freedom and protection to access and do the things that make life worth living. Children’s right to play is specifically recognised in Article 31 but their access to this right is as much about article 15, the right to association and peaceful assembly, and article 12, the right to be heard (Russell et al, 2020). These are collective rights, held in common (rather than possessed by individuals) and are concerned with children having equitable access to time and space in the public realm. Unfortunately, these rights are often not met, and to some degree (at least in the UK) it can feel like children’s rights are so poorly recognised, we might consider them second class citizens, with far less access and power to influence the purpose of place, when compared with other members of society.

Playing in ‘adult’ environments

Children’s access to places for play and the quality and design of those places is influenced by a wide range of variables depending on the socio-cultural, environmental, economic, and political context in which those spaces exist. These places are not simply inert/inactive backgrounds, people shape these places and these places shape people, we are entangled in an interrelated and mutually dependent relationship of people and place. However, in these entanglements there are people and agendas with more power than others to affect change, to shape place, and this creates a spatial injustice as these forces prioritise access to and use of space for particular purposes, constraining other uses or promoting particular forms of behaviour (Russell et al, 2019).

“Play, when seen as something that belongs to childhood is all too often either trivialized and ignored or co-opted for other means.”

At the crudest level of analysis these forces are related to adult concerns and prioritise the economy (Russell et al, 2020). The effect marginalizes childhood and so children’s behaviours, opinions and cultures matter less than those of adults and less than other economic interests. Play, when seen as something that belongs to childhood, is all too often either trivialized and ignored or co-opted for other means. Within this context, play is most commonly treated as a specific time and space bound activity that should happen after and away from the more important work.

Play is a matter of spatial justice

The focus on economic growth over social and spatial justice privileges the movement of goods and people (intensifying traffic) and the privatisation of spaces, as well as increasing income inequalities, reducing access to the ‘common-wealth’ of the material and social world. Researching with children on their relationships with neighbourhood environments reveals how economic interests dominate in design policy and practice in the built environment, often excluding children from the public realm. Much of this comes down to cars (moving and parked), which to a significant degree has resulted in children (and adults) being removed from public space, this withdrawal makes public space less inhabited, increasing adult fears for safety (Shaw et al, 2015).

“Children’s ability to play out and to access sufficient time, space and permission for play in the public realm is a matter of spatial justice.” (Russell et al, 2020)

In the UK, 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 have traditionally paid little attention to children’s actual use of space and many of the spaces children use for play fall outside of the remit of these types of assessments. These types of assessment fail to account for the realities of children’s play and serve to reinforce the idea that play is something that can be provided for children, in specific times and spaces chosen by adults (Barclay and Tawil, 2020).

Consequently, where places for play are developed, these are often separated and dedicated spaces where again issues of spatial justice prevail; this is a time/space for play, for this type of playing, for these types of players, play on this, this way and not that, not if you’re this age but that age, and then more subtly, not if you’re this or that gender/culture/race. Children’s ability to play out and to access sufficient time, space and permission for play in the public realm is therefore, a matter of spatial justice:

“a just organisation of public space acknowledges children’s right to play out (anywhere and everywhere) and makes that possible” (Russell et al, 2020).

The principal of play sufficiency

In 2013, the UNCRC published General Comment 17 on Article 31 rights. In this, they recommend that state parties introduce legislation to support children’s right to play based on the principle of sufficiency.

“This process requires adults to account for the ways we impact (both positively and negatively, materially and socially) on children’s ability to find time and space for play.”

This can be seen as an endorsement of the approach taken by the Welsh Government, who in 2012, made Wales the first country in the world to legislate specifically in support of children’s right to play with the introduction of the Welsh Play Sufficiency Duty. This duty requires all local governments in Wales to assess the sufficiency of children’s opportunities to play and then take action, based on the findings of their assessments, to secure play sufficiency for all. This statutory duty is a powerful policy instrument and organising principle that requires a radical re-think and re-enchantment of adult response-abilities towards children and their play in the public realm.

Assessing the sufficiency of opportunities for children’s play requires adults to account for the ways we impact (both positively and negatively, materially, and socially) on children’s ability to find time and space for play. The concept of play sufficiency provides a lens through which we can examine a wide range of variables and how their assembly creates particular prevailing conditions, influencing the extent to which children can express their right to play. In doing so we can explore how these issues might be re-imagined and re-assembled to create more favourable conditions for playing.

Play sufficiency is therefore a process of critical scrutiny, where adult assumptions, attitudes and practices must be examined to identify ways in which we can improve our collective ability to better respond to children’s right to play. Working with the principle of play sufficiency offers an opportunity to reconfigure the ways we think about the relationships between play, childhood, adulthood, adult run services and the built environment by inviting questions of what might constitute a ‘just’ society and what we can do, as adults, to enable children as equitable citizens to take advantage of conditions and resources through the co-creation of time and space for playing (Lester and Russell, 2014 and Russell et al, 2019).

The latest from Wales

Since the Welsh Play Sufficiency Duty was introduced, Play Wales, the national organisation for children’s play, have commissioned four research studies into the enactment of this pioneering legislation. Ludicology has been part of the research team for the last two studies. In the latest study, published in early 2020, we took things back a level to analyse the conditions that enable local governments (municipalities) to take action in support of play. We did so by exploring examples of actions taken and issues faced by those who want to make a difference working across three broad professional domains. This included those working in policy, strategic partnership and advocacy roles, the built and natural environment, and children’s and community services.

“Research with children was seen as key to play sufficiency and was often the starting point for actions taken in support of play.”

Throughout our research, particularly in relation to the built and natural environment, research with children was seen as key to understanding play sufficiency and was often the starting point for actions taken in support of play. Such research might include creative ways of doing research with children on their relationships with their everyday spaces, often involving direct engagement with relevant spaces, for example, map-making, photographing significant spaces and walkabouts. Such research focuses on the micro-detail of very specific neighbourhoods. There is ample evidence of the generic issues that support or constrain children’s play; these methods help adults to pay attention to the specifics of this space at this time for these children, enabling specific responses (Russell et al, 2020).

As more examples of children’s actual lived experiences are gathered through this research, patterns also emerge across different people’s experiences, enabling a more in depth understanding of children’s play habits and preferences to develop. Where these findings are shared with other adults and where adults have opportunities to work in partnership across professional domains, a collective wisdom develops around how best to respond to children’s right to play.

Reimagining the built and natural environment

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 in the UK, and are often highly valued by the children and parents who use them, they alone rarely provide for all of children’s play needs. We need to reimagine spaces and places that might currently preclude or discourage playing, with a view to creating networks of playable space that taken together make for a much more playable neighbourhood.

Oldenburg’s (2001) place framework provides a useful typography for this. In this framework third places are spaces frequented by those wishing respite or simply change from first place (home) and second place (work) in the case of children (school). Therefore, in seeking to improve the playability of neighbourhoods and thus the sufficiency of opportunities to play, we should be taking account of children’s third places. These third places form much of the fabric of children’s lives when available to them and are the cornerstone of their neighbourhood identity, sense of belonging and place attachment.

These third places of childhood include threshold third places, liminal spaces such as pathways, verges, entrances, driveways, parking adjacent to housing, stair wells and corridors, access points to medium and higher density housing, and the often-scrappy bits of land adjacent to housing children value but are not dedicated play spaces. Transitory third places, the routes children can take both to get to a destination but that also are themselves a destination point or points along the way. These transitory places provide opportunities for balancing on walls, running down paths, jumping cracked paving stones, having a rest and watching the world go by, skating, riding, scooting and so on. As well as destination third places such as parks, greens, public gardens, car parks, wilderness areas and other civic spaces.

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. This was perfectly summed up by a landscape architect we met as part of the research that informed the Making it possible to do play sufficiency… report:

“It’s about incorporating play at every opportunity. You can have two upstand kerbs, if they’re five and a half metres apart, you’ve got a call for kerby, haven’t you? You can plant two trees regulation goal post distance and you’ve got Wembley Stadium.” (Russell et al, 2020)

Ensuring children can access the opportunities available in their immediate environments also 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.

Ultimately this is about creating environments that ‘work’ for children, or rather that children can ‘work’, where they are able to navigate themselves to the resources on offer and make practical use of them. We believe adopting the principle of play sufficiency holds great promise for addressing many of the challenges involved in ensuring children can more easily and more regularly enact their right to play.


To find out more about play sufficiency, look here:

Play Sufficiency: An Introduction http://ludicology.local/store-room/play-sufficiency-childrens-right/

Or to find out more about our play sufficiency knowledge transfer partnership, look here:

Play Sufficiency Package for Local Government Organisations.


Barclay, M. and Tawil, B. (2015) Assessing Play Sufficiency in Wrexham, Wales, Journal of Playwork Practice, 2(2):191-200.

Barclay, M., and Tawil, B. (2020) http://ludicology.local/store-room/playful-communities-are-better-for-everyone/

Barclay, M., and Tawil, B. (2020) http://ludicology.local/store-room/play-sufficiency-a-population-health-priority/

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2010) Children’s right to play: An examination of the importance of play in the lives of children worldwide, The Hague: Bernard van Leer Foundation.

Lester, S. and Russell, W. (2014) Towards Securing Sufficient Play Opportunities: A short study into the preparation undertaken for the commencement of the second part of the Welsh Government’s Play Sufficiency Duty to secure sufficient play opportunities, Cardiff: Play Wales.

Oldenburg, R. (Ed.). (2001). Celebrating the third place: Inspiring stories about the great good places at the heart of our communities. Da Capo Press.

Russell, W., Barclay, M., Tawil, B. and Derry, C. (2019) Children’s Right to Play in Wales:
 Six years of stories and change since the commencement of the Welsh Play Sufficiency Duty, Cardiff: Play Wales.

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.

Shaw, B. et al (2015) Children’s Independent Mobility: An international comparison and recommendations for action, London: Policy Studies Institute.

Tawil, B. and Barclay, M. (2018) Play Sufficiency as an Organising Principle of Community Development, The Radical Community Work Journal, 3 (2).

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