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Child Safety Week – importance of play article

08-06-2018

It’s Child Safety Week (4 – 10 June 2018) – this article explains the mental and physical health and wellbeing benefits of play, especially outdoor play, for all children in Wales.

The article highlights the range of barriers preventing children from playing out – including traffic, safety fears and risk aversion and the importance of weighing up the risks and the benefits of allowing children to play outdoors.

The article also discusses the upcoming Joint Statement between Play Wales and Public Health Wales on the health benefits of outdoor play. 

The article, written by Play Wales, was originally published in the May issue of Public Health Network Wales’ e-bulletin.

Access to play, particularly outdoors, is essential for a healthy, happy and safe childhood

Freely chosen and personally directed play has traditionally served us well in terms of children’s health and wellbeing – it has a significant contribution to make to the current health agenda. There is increasing concern about the mental and physical health of children and young people. Outdoor play increases levels of physical activity in children and this increase in activity has multiple health benefits. It is linked with improved mental wellbeing and a reduced risk of childhood obesity. Furthermore, play helps children to test out behaviours and interactions with others and learn from them, building resilience for life. 

Children have an inborn urge to play – research suggests that playing has an impact on the physical and chemical development of the brain. It influences children’s ability to adapt to, survive, thrive and shape their social and physical environments. A significant amount of research shows the major role that play makes in supporting the development of resilience, creativity, flexibility and adaptability in human beings. These useful character traits enable us all to deal positively with unexpected challenges that will inevitably happen during our lives, thus keeping ourselves safe. 

To children and young people, playing is one of the most important aspects of their lives – they value time, freedom and quality places to play. Consultations with children show that they prefer to play outdoors in stimulating places. In this situation children tend to be physically active and stretch themselves both physically and emotionally.

All children need to seek out risk. It’s a natural part of growing up and it’s a way for them to learn how to survive and find their way in the world. If we support opportunities to experience a degree of risk and challenge children are less likely to seek the thrill and sense of achievement that comes with overcoming fears, in places that are potentially less appropriate. 

Play involves children doing as they wish in their own time and in their own way. However, whilst playing comes instinctively to all children and some children have enough opportunities to play freely near where they live, some don’t for a range of reasons. Parents report a range of barriers preventing children playing out, including traffic, difficulty in accessing spaces to play, time pressures and safety fears. There is a concern in society that playing outdoors is not seen as safe and this risk aversion is damaging the long-term health of the children and young people of Wales over their life course. 

To address these concerns and barriers, Play Wales is working with Public Health Wales to publish a Joint Statement on the health benefits of outdoor play, which stresses that access to play, particularly outdoors, is essential for a happy and healthy childhood. Without the support of parents, policy makers and the wider community to make play a priority, children will be denied the freedom, spaces and time to act on their natural instincts – the Joint Statement includes a range of recommendations for all adults who impact on children’s access to play. It complements the Health and Safety Executive position that emphasises that when planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and the benefits – no child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool and denied the opportunity to experience it. 

Play is a basic right for all children and is worthwhile for the enjoyment it brings to children and their families. However, play also has the benefit of having a positive impact on multiple important health outcomes including increased physical activity, reducing childhood obesity, improving wellbeing in children and young people and helping to develop resilience. 

More information about play and challenge