Fortunately, more and more municipalities are working on play-friendly public spaces. However, many policy visions and investments are still based on assumptions made by municipal officials or suppliers of play equipment. This is partly because good evaluations and effect measurements of existing and new play spaces are scarce, especially where informal play spaces are concerned. And when children are involved, they are often asked about their theoretical wishes rather than their concrete actions. To really gain insight into children's outdoor play, it is important to look at their actual behaviour. In this article I will share preliminary results from an ongoing study in the Netherlands focused on the child's perspective. It's based on a presentation I gave at the Child in the City World Conference 2022 in Dublin.
Free play in public space is an unique activity for kids. Without adult intervention they can choose their own location, play form and friends to play with. Based on a literature review (Helleman, 2018), I identified twelve reasons why playing outside is important (see figure). In brief: outdoor play is important for the personal development of kids, for their health, and it is also a lot of fun. You can read more about these reasons in this article: Playable cities: Why?
Despite these benefits, fewer and fewer children are playing outside. Especially when you compare today's children with their parents and grandparents. Research in the Netherlands shows that 69 percent of grandparents played outside more than inside when they were young (Kantar Public, 2018). Nowadays it is only 10 percent; instead 53% of children spend more time playing indoors than outdoors.
This is one of the reasons why we have started a research on outdoor play of primary school children (4-12 years old). A research within in three neighborhoods in three different cities (Amsterdam, The Hague, and Delft) in the Netherlands. Our main research question is: which factors can positively influence the use of outdoor space for playing and how can municipalities make a positive contribution to this? The research is still ongoing, but we have already conducted a literature review on factors that influence outdoor play behaviour. And we have been counting and observing in public space to find answers to these questions: who plays outside? Where do children play? And what kind of activities are they doing?
In the next few months we will also be working together with kids from different primary schools to talk with them about how they experience the public space. And how they fill in the public space for their wishes and needs. We will be using methods like photovoice and walk-along. At the end of the two-year study we aim to provide recommendations for municipalities, but also for urban planners and designers.
- Personal factors: Age and gender play an important role to what extent children do or do not play outside, discussed further below. The choice whether to play outside also depends on the wishes you have as a child, matching your character and skills. In addition, how much time you have to play outside freely is an important consideration. You may already be occupied as a kid with homework, training at your sports club or with day care after school.
- Social environment: Parents can play a decisive role. Do you have parents who encourage you and give you the freedom to do your thing outside ('freedom to roam')? Or do you have parents who follow a more protected, sheltered upbringing, because they are more afraid of accidents or the so-called ‘stranger danger’? Money also plays a role. For example, when you have a large bedroom for your own with a lot of toys then you might want to play inside more often. Also important: are there other kids to play with in your street and neighborhood?
- Built environment: The way we design, arrange and manage our cities has an important influence on whether there are enough public spaces and play areas for children. In addition to the quantity, the quality of the public space and play areas are also important. When they are appealing, challenging, diverse, inclusive and inviting more kids will play there. In addition, it is important that these places are clean, open, accessible, and safe to reach. For example, consider the added value of a good network for pedestrians and cyclist (connectivity).
- Natural environment: Trees are fun to climb in. Plants and water ensure that kids can look for animals. The climate has an influence on weather conditions: is it too cold, too hot or too wet to play outside? Air quality (i.g. smog) is another factor.
As mentioned before, if you want to gain insight into children's outdoor play you must document the actual behavior of children. We are doing this in three neighborhoods in Amsterdam, The Hague and Delft. Each neighborhood has been divided in smaller areas and these areas are visited multiple times in the afternoon after school and in dry weather. As researchers we register the location where the child is playing and after observing for a few minutes we fill out a short survey about who was playing, where they are playing and what types of play were occuring.