More than a game

01 November 2017

Young children aren’t getting enough playtime outside, but why is that a problem, and how can you help to change the situation? Journalist John Windell reports.

The latest figures on the amount of time children spend playing outdoors make for worrying reading.

A global survey last year of around 12,000 concerned parents found that in the UK almost a third of children aged five to 12 play outside for just 30 minutes a day (Persil/Edelman Berland, 2016). One in five don’t play outside at all. In fact, children were found to spend twice as much time on screens as they did playing outside. 

Another poll found that children’s freedom to explore nature and wildlife has shrunk (The Wildlife Trusts, 2015). Again, parents are worried: 91% of 1000 parents with children under 18 thought access to nature and wildlife important, but 78% worry children don’t spend enough time outdoors.

Most recently, a Welsh survey found that 97% of parents think children should play outdoors every day (Public Health Wales (PHW), 2017). Yet almost a third of under-fives (29%) are not getting that time. PHW recommends that children under five should have at least three hours of active play every day.


The barriers

Why aren’t children playing outdoors as much as they should? Marianne Mannello, assistant director at Play Wales says a number of factors prevent them. ‘Children say it’s the speed and volume of traffic. Parents say it’s safety and stranger danger.’

Helen Bilton, professor of outdoor learning at the University of Reading, points to the ‘electronic babysitter’. She says: ‘In the past, children would go out and stay out until teatime, now they’re given an iPad. It’s addictive, and they need an adult to say it’s enough.’

Then there’s perception of weather. ‘We’re the ones who stand around and get cold,’ highlights Sarah Chapman, who works with young children in a forest school. ‘The children just sweat their way through all the activity!’ Sarah believes colder weather is more a problem for the adults. 


Golden gains 

Numerous studies have found health and wellbeing benefits of being active outside, or simply getting outdoors. To give just one example, children who get more ‘green’ exercise are likely to be more healthy as adults (Pretty et al, 2009).

For Marianne, the health benefits of playing outdoors are ‘all about being active and fit’.

Outdoor play is vital to children’s physical development. ‘If you want young bones and muscles to develop, they need to be used,’ says Helen. ‘Sitting in a chair isn’t going to do it. By the age of seven, children should have all the basic motor skills in place, but increasingly, that is not happening.’ 


Beyond the physical 

Outdoor play also offers social, personal and educational benefits for children (Burdette and Whittaker, 2005, for instance). 

‘They get to know their communities,’ says Marianne, ‘they socialise, and their independence grows. It also supports their creativity and imagination, with opportunities for them to challenge themselves, solve problems, and cope with uncertainty.’

For Helen, the outdoors offers a vital sense of freedom. ‘Children see that parents control the home, teachers control the classroom, but nobody controls outside. So if they try something, they won’t be judged. From an emotional point of view, they feel free and able to explore the environment and their own abilities.’

Sarah gets to see the many benefits first-hand. ‘You watch them learn to balance, climb and swing. But you also see them become more confident. If you give them some freedom to explore and be themselves, they take it. They even begin to understand how things work in a basic scientific way.’

That’s a lot to potentially miss out on, if children aren’t playing outside.


Encourage outdoor fun

So how can community practitioners help promote more outdoor play? One way is through providing information to parents, encouraging them to give their children more opportunities for it.

Marianne says creative thinking is sometimes required. ‘Many parents say children have nowhere to play, so it can help to encourage parents to see things differently. There may be some open space, a lane with puddles, or even the pavement. It’s not all about equipment where children can slide, climb and swing, wonderful as they are.’

Helen says that parents’ mindset is vital. ‘They need to know their children are playing in a safe place, and that it will benefit their health. In the long run, if you give children the repeated opportunity to go outside, they will be much better able to judge what they can or can’t achieve. They will be safer and healthier as children and adults.’

Sarah agrees. ‘Let parents know that bruises are not to be feared! A bruise or two is a sign that a child is exploring and learning how to use their body.’

With winter looming, it’s about getting the clothing right, rather than shying away. ‘A waterproof coat and trousers, and a pair of wellies can make all the difference,’ says Helen. ‘Children’s feet, head and back of the neck need to be warm.’

As well as helping parents, practitioners can also promote the benefits of outdoor play in local public health campaigns and help to create links between play services and communities.

The scope of outdoor play is clearly more than a game.

Picture credit | iStock

Advice to offer parents…

Play Wales has lots of tips for overcoming key barriers to outdoor play, including:


There’s nowhere to play
Most children will play anywhere given time, space and other children to play with. Local authority websites normally list local play areas such as parks, playgrounds and suitable spaces. 

It’s raining
Children worry less about bad weather than adults. It usually comes down to common sense, and ensuring children are dressed appropriately. 

Money is tight
Communities often have free outdoor play areas or facilities. But a little imagination can turn an outdoor space at home into a play area – empty cardboard boxes can become cars or castles! 

It’s not safe
Children need support to play outdoors with confidence. Help them to get to know the basic layout and key routes in their community, and how to keep safe around roads (see our feature on page 36). Mostly, the benefits of play outweigh the risks.

They want to watch TV
Strike a balance, so there’s time for TV/computers and play. Set an example – if parents and carers restrict their time on electronic devices, children will do the same.


Burdette HL, Whittaker RC. (2005) Resurrecting free play in young children – looking beyond fitness and fatness to attention, affiliation, and affect. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 159(1): 46-50.

Persil/Edelman Berland. (2016) Dirt is good: the campaign for play. See: dirtisgood.com/uk/truth-about-dirt.html (accessed 20 October 2017).

Public Health Wales. (2017) Nearly a third of under-fives aren’t getting enough outdoor play. See: wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/888/news/45907 (accessed 20 October 2017).

Pretty J et al. (2009) Nature, childhood, health and life pathways. Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society Occasional Paper 2009-02. University of Essex: Colchester.

The Wildlife Trusts. (2015) Every child wild: making nature part of growing up – for all children. See: wildlifetrusts.org/news/2015/11/03/every-child-wild-making-nature-part-growing-all-children (accessed 20 October 2017).


Subscription Content

Click To Return To Homepage

Only current Unite/CPHVA members or Community Practitioner subscribers can access the Community Practitioner journals archive. Please provide your name and membership/subscriber number below to verify access:

Membership number

If you are not already a member of CPHVA and wish to join please click here to JOIN TODAY

Membership of Unite gives you:

  • legal and industrial support on all workplace issues 
  • professional guidance on clinical and professional issues 
  • online information, training and support 
  • advice and support for all health professionals and health support workers
  • access to our membership communities 
  • CPHVA contribution rate is the Unite contribution rate plus £1.25 per month 

Join here https://www.unitetheunion.org/join-unite/

If you are not a member of Unite/CPHVA but would like to purchase an annual print or digital access subscription, please click here