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Psychologists reiterate importance of outdoor play for children

Psychologists have reiterated the importance of outdoor play after The British Children’s Play Survey found that children are being held back from outdoor play until late childhood.

The survey, which was carried out in April 2020 with more than 1,900 parents, asked about the play of children aged 5 to 11. While parents said that on average they were allowed out alone to play before the age of nine, the current generation of primary school children are not given the same independence until they were nearly 11.

The British Psychological Society’s Division of Educational and Child Psychology has long advocated for the importance of play for children as critical to their development and wellbeing. Play can also help develop children’s learning and skills and is hugely important as a socio-cultural activity and not just because of its relation to learning.

Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the DECP, said: “The findings of this survey highlight the urgent need to prioritise play for our children, and the importance of all children and young people having access to free, high quality, and local opportunities for play.

“We need to ensure we have spaces in our communities which are perceived as safe by parents, with accessible places to play near homes. We need to understand the wider factors that might also impact a child’s ability to play, or parent’s willingness to let their children play alone outside, such as increased traffic and poor air quality,” he added.

The British Children’s Play Survey found that the average age that a child was allowed to play outside alone was just before their 11th birthday (an average of 10.74 years). Just 6% of parents (108 participants) said that they would not allow their child to play independently before 11. In contrast, parents themselves said they were allowed out before their 9th birthday (an average of 8.91 years).

Parents who participated in the study were relatively risk adverse in relation to their children’s play, and these attitudes corresponded with the age children were allowed out to play independently and the amount of ‘adventurous’ play that children were engaging in. Adventurous play involves some element of risk, such as climbing trees or riding a bike fast downhill, and it is believed that engaging in adventurous play may help to prevent anxiety in children.

The research also revealed that primary school children are, on average, getting just three hours of play a day over the course of a year, with around half of play taking place outside.

Professor Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading who led the study said: “The concerns we have from this report are twofold. First, we are seeing children getting towards the end of their primary school years without having had enough opportunities to develop their ability to assess and manage risk independently. Second, if children are getting less time to play outdoors in an adventurous way, this may have an impact on their mental health and overall wellbeing.”

The team of child psychologists at the University of Reading are exploring the relationship between risk-taking in play and the benefits for children’s mental health. Their findings suggest that although children are spending a reasonable amount of time outside, they may be missing out on many of the freedoms, particularly to explore and play in an adventurous way, that previous generations enjoyed.

Dr Melernie Meheux, co-chair of the British Psychological Society’s DECP, added: “Through our personal and professional interactions with children we know the value of play, and how children can struggle when their right to play is curtailed either by their environment or as a form of punishment.

“Given the impact of the pandemic on children’s opportunities for play and socialisation, now more than ever it is imperative that play and break times are not reduced or taken away from children as punishment,” she concluded.

The BPS’ DECP Position statement on a Child’s Right to Play

British Children’s Play Survey

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