Beyond parks and playgrounds – how can we plan for children’s play?

The value of children’s play is under increasing discussion from policymakers, practitioners, and the general public. For some, there is a belief that children’s play is a frivolous activity that directly contrasts with the valuable work of adults; to others it is the very foundation of human culture and learning. With this, the way play is treated differs substantially across contexts, from a reluctant tolerance reserved only for the very young, to promotion and facilitation across childhood and into adulthood. Evidence, however, increasingly links play with a multitude of benefits from health to education, and there are wide ranging concerns about decreasing opportunities for children to engage in the kinds of unstructured leisure activities available to previous generations.

jenny wood
Dr Jenny Wood, Research Associate

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) gives all people under the age of 18 a right to play, rest, leisure, and to access cultural life (Article 31). Despite this, governments have not always been forthcoming with measures to improve the play opportunities and experiences of all children. With this, a rapid and worrying decline in children’s independent mobility is leading to a raft of concerns around children’s ability to exercise their right outdoors, and without excessive adult interference. The primary factor here is the dominance of cars, and the resulting environmental changes, along with social attitudes about how space should be designed, and where children should and should not go. With an environmental component to this loss of freedom, what then can town planners do about it?

A central tenet of town planning systems is to pursue what is in the public interest. By allocating spaces for different land uses, it determines where development should and should not go whilst considering issues as diverse as housing supply, air pollution, and equality and diversity. However, planners are not always well equipped to understand how their policies affect different communities, nor to justify how (perhaps unpopular) planning approaches can contribute to positive long-term outcomes.  Children’s play is a prime example, with  development plans and other policies appearing to support the development of space specifically targeted at children. Yet, to what extent does the direct allocation of land uses, such as parks and playgrounds, truly allow children a right to explore their local areas? Moreover, how much does it contribute to a child’s internationally sanctioned human right to play?

My recently published paper in Town Planning Review sets out what a town planning system that understands and furthers a child’s ‘right to play’ might look like. In particular, planning for children’s play requires understanding how time, space, and attitudes affect children’s ability to meet their rights. This is summarised in the figure below:

Time space attitudes
Figure 1 The factors contributing to a child-friendly environment, and the role the town planning system can play within this. Based on Wrexham County Borough Council (2014)

The paper also examines the differing approaches to this topic in Scotland and Wales, assessing the extent to which national children’s play policy (an aspect of social policy), is supported and interacts with the daily practice and policy of planners (most closely aligned with economic policy). The differing approaches of Scotland and Wales offer an important comparison opportunity with each respective government vowing to make their country a better place for children to grow up. Indeed, both governments show a greater support for children’s UNCRC rights than England, and have a similar array of devolved powers at their disposal to further this cause.

Critical assessment of the situation in these two jurisdictions highlights that planning policy in Scotland interacts little with children’s play policy beyond recognising a need for structured facilities. In contrast, the Welsh Government instigates a rights-based approach to children, with statutory commitments to assess ‘play sufficiency’ in each local authority area as part of the Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010. These Play Sufficiency Assessments (PSA) look beyond simply structured play opportunities available in leisure centres, parks, and playgrounds to review what all local authority policies contribute to furthering the outdoor opportunities for children of all ages.

Whilst PSAs vary in methodology and quality, the participation of children in assessing the quality of their environment is often an important component. While still in its infancy (the first PSAs were produced in 2013, and repeated in 2016) my research suggests they are having some impact in linking local planners and other related professionals, their policies, and right to play. For instance:

  • one local authority was making a bid to fund nature play opportunities along a coastal path in an area with high levels of deprivation;
  • one local authority had instigated a process whereby the play development team would assist the planning team in assessing the quality of play opportunities in new development proposals; and
  • another local authority had developed a piece of supplementary planning guidance on new residential developments that included detailed guidance on providing space for play beyond installing fixed equipment playgrounds.


In contrast, Scotland has a National Play Strategy, and this maps the contribution of planning policies to the strategy. However, on-the-ground linkages are minimal, and planning still focuses on structured facilities and frequent separation of ‘adult’ and ‘child’ land uses. Yet, what is promising from the study of both countries is a willingness of planners to understand and embrace how they may pursue a more child friendly approach to the places they plan. Indeed, non-statutory tools exist in Scotland that could achieve this aim. The missing link, therefore, appears to be in knowledge, understanding, and opportunities to collaborate with colleagues that focus on children.

Whilst my research has uncovered some strategic links that are already being made between children’s play and planning, particularly in Wales, there is still much work to do. An opportunity is now arising to do more in Scotland to improve children’s use and interaction with space, through The Planning (Scotland) Bill, currently going through Parliament. This suggests that there may be more focus on child friendly policies in the near future. With a greater link between children’s services and planning, and the development of training, tools, and understanding, there is no reason we cannot reverse the decline in children’s independent mobility and plan better for children’s play.