Outdoor play is crucial for a child’s development and wellbeing
“All children need to play and have a right to play. All children should have equal access to play opportunities.” The New Charter for Children’s Play, Children’s Play Council (now Play England), 1998
Few of us would disagree with this statement. Yet the reality is that the vast majority of disabled children in England do not have equal access to play. Many have no play opportunities at all. Those who are able to access play often find it offered in quite tightly controlled environments that do not necessarily have access to outdoor spaces, or allow free flow from inside to outside areas.
It is important to consider the twofold impact on disabled children on not being able to freely play with others, or to freely play outdoors. During October 2011, KIDS surveyed parents of disabled children on their ease of access to play and childcare provision over the summer holiday period. The results were sobering:
- one in ten disabled children were refused a place in play/childcare provision over the summer of 2011
- one in three parents of disabled children received no play/childcare provision over the summer holidays
- one in five families with a disabled child pay more than twice as much as the national average for their childcare
- two in three families found it difficult or very difficult to find appropriate play/childcare provision for their disabled child.
Parents who did manage to secure play/childcare provision for their disabled child often had to make use of specialist services, separating their child from siblings, friends and their local community.
Why is play important?
“The right to play is a child’s first claim on the community. Play is nature’s training for life.” (David Lloyd George, 1925)
The importance and value of play to all children is all too frequently overlooked by adults. A child’s right to play is enshrined by article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, but this right is often undervalued or met with passivity by governments and policy makers. Outdoor play in particular can be undermined by a cultural aversion to risk or might conceivably be misaligned with sport and adult notions of achievement rather than an activity undertaken for its own sake, out of simple pleasure, and bounded principally by the imagination and motivation of the child.
Outdoor play is essential to the healthy physical, social and emotional development of all children. It can be hugely stimulating and exciting and it offers unique opportunities for adventure, challenge and personal development.
Having the chance to play freely outdoors and have access to natural environments is particularly important for disabled children. Children with multiple impairments will benefit from exploring the variety of sights, smells, textures and sounds found in natural environments. Sensory exploration of outdoor spaces may enhance children’s appreciation and awareness of nature and also contribute to their overall health, happiness and wellbeing.
Disabled children are often overprotected and offered limited access to challenging or risky activities. Outdoor play provides an opportunity to explore boundaries and engage with the unfamiliar or unexpected. This in turn is conducive to improved levels of confidence and self-esteem.
Barriers to play
“Children and young people of all ages – like adults – should be able to ‘go shopping’ for their play. They need variety and choice. The essence of play provision must be to give children the freedom to choose.” (Planning for Play, Lady Allen of Hurtwood, 1968)
In the recently revised study A world without play: A literature review (2012), Play England suggest that “[a] combination of poor play environments, busy school schedules and an increase in structured activities” has impeded opportunities for children to engage in free and unfettered play. Moreover, according to a 2009 survey conducted by Natural England, children spend far less time playing in natural places than they did in previous generations. The survey revealed that 81 per cent of children wanted more freedom to play outdoors. The survey also found that although the majority of parents would like their children to be able to play out unsupervised, anxieties including fears of strangers and road safety prevent them from giving much freedom to their children. Disabled children are denied this freedom to a greater extent than their non-disabled peers due to a range of social and environmental barriers.
These obstacles may be overcome if adequate levels of support are put in place. In All of Us – The Framework for Quality Inclusion (KIDS, 2008) a range of key features are described that help to create an environment focused on the joint needs of disabled and non-disabled children as well as helping to manage parental anxieties. These include:
- everyone is welcomed on arrival and wished well on departure in a way that suits them
- practitioners are aware of potential barriers to accessing play fully and understand that attitudes, environments, structures and policies may disadvantage particular children, and challenge these barriers as appropriate
- time is given to develop links with families/schools/services as part of a commitment to give all local children and families genuine opportunities to participate in the play environment.
Children in general, and disabled children in particular, are often assumed to be dependent and vulnerable rather than competent to make choices and actively participate in decision making. Deaf children and children with communication impairments, autism or multiple health requirements are among the most isolated and least likely to be consulted.
A consultation with over 4,000 children and young people carried out in the West Midlands (Dudley MBC/MADE, 2009) revealed that disabled children are disproportionately susceptible to bullying and therefore least likely to use outdoor play spaces. Improving access to inclusive outdoor play requires the co-operation of multiple agencies and, significantly, the involvement of disabled children and young people and their families.
It is vital that disabled children and their families are seen as active participants in their local communities to normalise their presence in society and reduce incidents of bullying or hate crime.
Current legislation promotes the participation of disabled children and young people in the design and delivery of services. The Children Act of 1989 (as amended) and the Disability Equality Duty (2005)/Equality Act (2010) are important landmarks, as were, under the last Government, the policy documents Aiming High for Disabled Children (2007) and the national Play Strategy (2008).
Recent challenges to outdoor play
“Enabling all children to play, and to play together, is about a benefit to the whole community. It is not about overcoming legal hurdles or making expensive provision for a small section of the community. If any child is prevented from playing then it diminishes the play experience of all.” (Can Play – Will Play: Disabled Children and Access to Outdoor Playgrounds, Alison John and Rob Wheway, 2004)
The impact of present austerity measures on local authority budgets and inevitable pressures on charity and voluntary sector funding present a significant challenge. A report by the National Children’s Bureau (The Ripple Effect, 2011) reveals that cuts are having a disproportionate effect on the children’s voluntary sector.
It has been reported across the UK that adventure play provision is particularly at risk; many local authorities have disbanded their play teams to preserve staff for statutory services.
Children and young people have emerged as the “group most severely affected” by local government cuts, according to a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Serving deprived communities in a recession (2012) used budgetary data and surveys with 25 local authorities to understand the early impacts of local authority budget cuts since 2010 and noted that “Play schemes, youth volunteering projects and specialist support in schools were the casualties mentioned most often.”
Hope for the future
“Inclusive play is not about meeting ‘special needs’; it’s about meeting all children’s and young people’s need to play, wherever they choose and in a variety of different ways”. (It Doesn’t Just Happen: Inclusive Management for Inclusive Play, Philip Douch, 2006)
Play England has launched the Love Outdoor Play campaign, which calls on everyone to support children’s freedom to play outside. There are many ways to get involved and the campaign promotes a wide range of actions to ensure that anyone can be involved with outdoor play. The Cabinet Office’s Social Action Fund is funding the campaign via the Play England Free Time Consortium, a group of 17 organisations which aims to increase social action in support of children’s play.
It is crucial to remember, though, that creating and maintaining accessible play spaces is not simply about money. While many playground organisers may not have large amounts of funding or state of the art accessible equipment, a great deal can be achieved by ensuring that staff have a positive, “can do” attitude. Playgrounds should be inspiring places which constantly evolve depending on what the children who use them want to do, and it is vital that all children are included and made welcome.
Anna Route is National Development Department Programme and Policy Officer at KIDS, a national charity working with disabled children, young people and their families. The charity provides information and resources to help promote the positive inclusion of disabled children and young people in stimulating and adventurous activities:
Information on Play England’s Love Outdoor Play campaign can be found at: