Walking The Dog: Barriers to Children’s Play

When I was eight years old my parents moved from London to South Devon. I remember it being a big change in my life, the main one being having to leave my friends on the street with whom I played with most days….. riding our bikes in the street, playing knock out ginger or exploring the derelict house next door.  I don’t really remember any adults on the street apart from the ones that got cross because we had knocked on their doors and run away!

Image: Boys playing leapfrog in the street, London, England, 1953

When we arrived at our new house it was much bigger than our last one and had a massive garden but there were hardly any other children to play with.

I made friends with the boy next door, which was good but it wasn’t the same as my old life in London.  One really good thing about moving house though was having regular access to a large woodland and two small coves…. I could and did literally spend all day in the woods, in my free time by myself creating secret spaces tucked away that no one else knew about…. I would also be equally attracted to the small coves and could regularly be seen down there happily smashing rocks up with my geological hammer in the hope of finding a huge nodule of amethyst or rare volcanic glass – obsidian.  Before long it was like I had always lived there, London being a distant happy memory. My parents still live in the same house now and I regularly visit them with my own children enjoying and sharing the sea, coves and woodland that I enjoyed. 

On a recent visit I was taking my parents dogs for their constitutional walk one afternoon.  As I was walking up from the cove, in the woodland I came across an eight year boy by himself who was quite happily playing. In the first instance my professional head questioned and scrutinised the situation…

Who is he here with? Why is he alone… has something happened? Is he ok, should I intervene in some way?

Then my rational head responded…This is where I played when I was eight, by myself, all day at times. I’m a playworker, I understand the importance and value of play as well of the benefits…. What’s changed? 

But this situation felt different, almost kind of weird to me because I felt bad for even thinking something was wrong for a child to play alone in the woods by themselves…. I had been challenged against the very principles I advocate strongly for…. I stood for a moment contemplating all of this…. initially blaming fundamental society principles, then realised I was part of society now….. and then carried on with my walk leaving the boy to whatever he was doing.

In this video children discuss what they like about play and some of the barriers that affect this

Should barriers to children’s play be challenged? We believe that they should.  Playwork Principle 4 states that “For playworkers, the play process takes precedence and playworkers act as advocates for play when dealing with adult led agendas.” Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group (2005)

Children today face many more barriers to playing out than in previous generations… consequently lots of things have changed for children’s play, having a direct impact on their development and well-being.

More traffic on the road: 71% of adults played in the street or an area near their home when they were a child. This compares to only 21% of children today. Play Day Research (2007) Street Play Opinion Poll

Technology advances beyond the ZX81: British children are estimated to spend between five and six hours a day on screen-based entertainment. During this time they’re not engaging in the outdoor, loosely-supervised play that has been children’s birth right for millennia. So it’s not just too much screen-gazing that poses a danger to overall development, but the substitution of this junk play for real play with real people in the real world.  Palmer S (2003) Toxic Childhood Image from the Guardian

Parents increasing concerns about stranger danger: A BBC survey in Scotland which looked at public concerns…. Results showed that although child murders by strangers has shown no change in twenty years, 76% of parents believed that there had been an increase with 38% believing the increase had been dramatic.  Furedi F (2001) Paranoid Parenting

Less spaces for children to play: For every acre of land given over to public playgrounds, over 80 acres are given over to golf.  Children’s Play Council (2004) 

Children leading more sedentary lifestyles creating various health concerns and epidemicsThere is an obesity epidemic in young children and the main solution should be to ‘reduce television viewing’ and promote playing.  British Medical Journal (2001) 322:3 13-314

Less free time for children to play from increased pressure to do well at school: Professor Alexanders’ review of primary education (the largest in 40 years) revealed a worrying loss of childhood, from pressures to pass tests and league tables. Alexander R (2008) Emerging perspectives on childhood

Playing helps children to explore and understand the world around them and is an integral factor in development and well-being.

Scrapstore Play Services offers a range of playwork training courses for parents, early years practitioners and lunchtime staff about the importance of play for children. Please phone us on 0117 9143002 for more information.

Useful Tips for Parents

  • Think of a memory of play that you enjoyed doing as a child

  • What key factors made that memory stand out

  • Imagine children doing that sort of play today - What’s different?

There are lots of things that you can do to make a difference and advocate for children’s rights to play.

  • Give permission to play out on the street in your community: Playing Out is a not-for-profit information and advice resource for street play. We aim to increase children’s safe access to informal play in residential streets through: Directly supporting resident-led street play sessions.

  • Encourage schools to open up their grounds out of hours: The Scrapstore Play Services have been working with schools and early years settings delivering play training, research and consultancy since 2007.

  • Make the most of the local facilities via your local council: Bristol City Council have a useful website Go Places To Play detailing the local facilities and play events happening in the city.

  • Find out about campaigns and movements that support children’s rights to play: The National Trust have recently launched a campaign of 50 things to do before your 11 ¾.

  • Love Outdoor Play is led by Play England and supported by the Free Time Consortium, a growing collective of local and specialist organisations working together to increase freedom to play.