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Blog post Part of series: Wellbeing and being outdoors

Being active in play environments: The key to children’s health and wellbeing

Sruthi Atmakur-Javdekar

Playground closures due to the ongoing pandemic have led to urgent calls for city councils and authorities in the UK to keep play spaces open. Parents and experts reason that home isolation has led to a lack of physical exercise, reduced socialisation with peers, and a loss of connection with the outdoors, resulting in greater long-term risks for children’s physical and mental health and wellbeing (Grant, 2021). Play is essential for children’s holistic development, and children’s right to play is rightly recognised as a fundamental right by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In addition to the current issue of access to play areas, there are other critical physical and social barriers to fulfilling children’s play in global urban areas. These barriers include: limited green spaces; inadequate opportunities for child-controlled play; lack of adults’ awareness about the significance of play; growing academic pressures on children; increased screen time and structured time for enrichment activities; and the lack of participation by children in planning for play (IPA, 2016; McKendrick et al., 2018; Atmakur-Javdekar, 2020). One way to reduce these barriers is by ensuring that spaces at the neighbourhood-level have diverse environmental qualities that encourage children and caregivers to stay physically active, meet friends and connect with the natural environment.

‘One way to reduce the physical and social barriers to fulfilling children’s play is by ensuring that spaces at the neighbourhood level have diverse environmental qualities that encourage children and caregivers to stay physically active, meet friends and connect with the natural environment.’

Over the past decade, the idea of play environments has typically meant fixed play equipment such as swings, slides, climbing frames or walls, merry-go-round and integrated play structures on rubberised surfaces that primarily support children’s gross motor development such as balancing, sitting, running, climbing, and so on. In such environments with fixed play equipment, children have limited opportunities to engage in various play types; and play is often ‘scripted’ by adults, meaning, children are subtly directed to use the equipment in a specific manner to climb, slide and hang from. However, adventure playgrounds (Staempfli, 2009) offer children ample opportunities to engage with diverse types of materials and a range of loose parts (such as large wooden blocks, sand, hammers, nails, and so forth) that are fundamental to promoting their creativity, imagination, self-confidence and overall physical, social-emotional, and cognitive growth and development (Lester & Russell, 2010; Gray, 2013). Yet, spaces like adventure playgrounds are often viewed by adults as unkempt and risky spaces and are deemed as ‘inappropriate’ for children’s play.

For a long time, child development and play experts have recognised that children need a range of play types for their holistic growth and overall development (Hughes, 1999; Gray 2013). This means children need a diverse play space with a range of fixed and moveable elements and surfaces where they can perceive the environment in terms of the functions it affords (Heft, 1988; Gibson, 1979). An ideal play area is one where children can:

  • challenge their physical and mental strength by grasping objects, climbing trees, crawling, running and jumping,
  • build, control and manipulate the environment around them,
  • have rich sensory experiences and exercise their fine motor skills, preferably with natural elements,
  • participate in social experiences where they empathise, cooperate and socialise with peers, and
  • exercise their creativity and imagination.

In order to improve children’s play environments, a way forward for city corporations and planning authorities is to create neighbourhood-level spaces with diverse environmental qualities that includes a range of human-made and natural physical elements and surfaces (PEaS) (Atmakur-Javdekar, 2020) that afford children opportunities to engage in multiple play types, thereby supporting their holistic growth, mental wellbeing and physical development.


References

Atmakur-Javdekar, S. (2020). Young childrens play in high-rise housing: A window into the changing lives of urban middle-class families in Pune metropolitan area [Unpublished dissertation]. The Graduate Center, City University of New York. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_etds/3861/

Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Houghton Mifflin.

Grant, H. (2021, January 17). Let us play: Parents and charities plead for swings and slides to be kept open during lockdown. Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/17/let-us-play-parents-and-charities-plead-for-swings-and-slides-to-be-kept-open-during-lockdown  

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books.

Heft, H. (1988). Affordances of children’s environments: A functional approach to environmental description. Childrens Environments Quarterly, 5(3), 29–37.

Hughes, F. P. (1999). Children, play, and development (3rd ed.). Allyn and Bacon.

International Play Association [IPA]. (2016). Childrens right to play and the environment. http://ipaworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/IPA-Play-Environment-Discussion-Paper.pdf

Lester, S., & Russell, W. (2010). Childrens right to play: An examination of the importance of play in the lives of children worldwide. Bernard van Leer Foundation.

McKendrick, J. H., Loebach, J., & Casey, T. (2018). Realizing article 31 through General Comment No. 17: Overcoming challenges and the quest for optimum play environment. Children, Youth and Environments, 28(2), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.28.2.0001

Staempfli, M. B. (2009). Reintroducing adventure into children’s outdoor play environments. Environment and Behavior, 41(2), 268–280. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916508315000