May 24, 2019


Let them play! Kids need freedom from play restrictions to develop

File 20190523 187147 18qxn70.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Playing in nature improves children’s learning, social and emotional skills.
MI PHAM/unsplash

Brendon Hyndman, Charles Sturt University

You may have heard of play. It’s that thing children do – the diverse range of unstructured, spontaneous activities and behaviours.

Children play in many ways, including by exploring movements, constructing with equipment, creating games, using imagination and chasing others around a playground.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises play as every child’s basic right. But play is becoming extinct. Global studies, across generations, have confirmed outdoor children’s play has been declining, across all age groups, for decades.

Play is every child’s basic right.
from shutterstock.com

Unstructured play improves learning and social and physical development. Providing a variety of play options, improved play access and fewer restrictions can encourage children to engage in physical activity with peers in line with their imaginations.

Read more:
Why suburban parks offer an antidote to helicopter parenting

Play is becoming extinct

Australian children’s active or independent travel has been declining over the past two decades, consistent with other countries.

There are many reasons researchers are describing child’s play as “endangered” and “extinct”. These include more use of electronic devices and parents wanting to protect children from strangers, traffic, pollution and bullying.

Research also points to a low awareness of the importance of play, more pressure on children to do well in class and more restrictions on play. Hectic schedules, such as parents’ jobs and children’s extra-curricular activities, may also contribute.

Fewer children are cycling or walking to school.
from shutterstock.com

Parents have reported their children are playing outdoors far less than they used to when they, themselves, were children. Parents are noticing fewer children walking and cycling to school or actively playing after school.

Modern parents are more likely to accompany children, by driving them to school, attending their excursions, supervising them on school grounds, or keeping them indoors altogether.

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Urban environments are prone to decreasing play opportunities with less open, natural spaces for outdoor play.

Why this matters

Children have fewer opportunities to engage with nature. Providing more contact with nature can enhance children’s creativity, boost their mood, lower stress, improve well-being, promote physical activity and improve attention spans.

Nature play is also becoming more important as a counterbalance to children’s technological saturation. It is important for children to connect with nature early, as they are then likely to learn to appreciate nature into adulthood.

Read more:
Children are our future, and the planet’s. Here’s how you can teach them to take care of it

In primary school, children spend around 30 hours per week at the school and have more than 4,000 recess periods. If play opportunities are becoming limited around the home and community, schools are the best place for children to meet their play requirements.

How schools can help

Research shows introducing simple objects from around the home (such as milk crates, pipes and wooden planks) into school playgrounds may influence children to work cooperatively. They discover new ideas and solve problems by constructing, observing, designing and learning from each other.

Read more:
Children need to play outdoors, but we’re not letting them

Providing more options for children to play outdoors ensures they are intellectually challenged and engaged to find new ways to use such spaces for discovery. If loose play equipment, such as balls, bats and blocks, isn’t available children can still use what nature provides, such as twigs, leaves, rocks, feathers, petals, mud and sand.

The diversity of outdoor objects and features offers children a variety of shapes, sizes and locations they can use to discover, explore and invent games or designs. It’s better for play objects not to be fixed as this helps with exploration, discovery and creativity.

How three UK schools have improved playgrounds through natural play materials and landscapes.

Many Australian school playgrounds are fixed in the same spot. But new and replenishing play opportunities are important for children. For schools and parents to maximise children’s play, play environments should include:

  • spaces for thinking, so school children can make discoveries, learn and be intellectually engaged
  • spaces for doing, so school children can take moderate risks, undertake play challenges and extend themselves physically
  • spaces for being, so school children can be themselves away from the confines of classroom walls or overly restrictive rules, regulations and routines
  • spaces for feeling, so school children can explore and independently embrace their senses and play decisions with a diversity of colours and features.

The Australian Curriculum recognises the importance of play and outdoor learning. Ensuring children can access quality outdoor play can help align with national curriculum objectives.The Conversation

Brendon Hyndman, Senior Lecturer and Course Director (Postgraduate Education courses), Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

  • My grandson attends daycare four days a week. They are pretty good as they tend to let the kids just play with whatever they choose. But they also have organised activities when things to do are set out for them. So they’ve got it all covered


  • Nature and play time is so important.


  • I am one of those terrible mums as I will not allow my 6 year olds to have their own phones or devices. Their 4 year niece has her own tablet and is allowed to play on the TV with a game pad. My older children were ok without electronic devices, so I think the younger ones can too. My 16 year old has a phone for emergencies only as she has stated her life is too busy with work, school, social life and home life to play on it. Yes the younger ones do have access to a computer for their lessons but they prefer to do other things. My youngest daughter loves being outdoors with her older brother and father playing with engines or gardening. Her twin brother loves home duties so is growing the veggies he needs for cooking. He also plays outside with his older brothers but prefers not getting dirty ( a sensory thing) outside but loves making things in cooking or craft work.


  • This is true. It was hard in our case with a disabled child, who couldn’t walk, so I guess I was a bit more protective too.


  • I still have to kick my son outside to play, he has trouble trying to entertain himself. It has been since he was a toddler. I got him a little puppy when he was almost 2yrs old. ohh it was perfect, my son was able to go outside and play in the dirt without having to hold onto me all the time. turned out my son had separation anxiety. the puppy helped so much in a big way.
    it is hard now days, with sensory issues, the loudness of the park or play centres. My son is now 12, I try taking him out camping by the river. devices detoxing!!!


  • Play is vital, not just for kids but adults as well. I can’t remember when kids suddenly stop going to the playground, I’m guessing it’s around high school. I lived opposite a park so even in yr 12 my friends and I would play on the swings and see-saw. Now when I take my own kids to the playground I still go on the swings and even race my other mum friends on the flying fox! I say play for all!!! I understand unstructured play doesn’t work for everyone. I myself have a little one who doesn’t like unstructured play much so only has short periods of it every day. But every little bit helps


  • Completely agree that playtime is becoming extinct unless its on technology.


  • Timely article its amazing to see kids that are in a play environment and they are still attached to their devices


  • These days kids are glued to their electronic devices. I’m thankful my children still love to go outside, to the park, for walks or play their sport. My High School aged daughter doesn’t even have a phone, the only kid in her class!!


  • My kids loved being outside, but their children not so much. There have always been dangers in the big bad world, but they weren’t dwelt upon so much and they didn’t go ‘viral’ on Facebook etc. but children learnt to be street wise because of being out there. I do feel sorry for the young these days as they can’t use their imagination any more.


  • I admit that my kids don’t have as much freedom as I had while I was in their age but again the society nowadays are so dangerous and different from the ones i had. I was so lucky that I got to roam freely to explore the nature while I was little.


  • It is very important for kids to be outside! They are immersed in so much technology that its vital that they are balancing this with nature!


  • A good article about the benefits and importance of play skills with children!


  • I am very lucky because my son would rather play outside than be indoors. It’s a struggle to get him inside some days!! He’s only 2 but he has a great imagination and loves nothing More than creating a little world with his construction vehicles in the dirt


  • I have recently gotten much more excited about gardening and wanting to spruce the place up, plant trees, shrubberies and flowers, and also fill the house with indoor plants. It will take a while but it’s something my kids and I can all help with. My youngest loves planting things. When I was a kid for a few years we lived a bit out of town with some land and my brother and I rarely wore shoes and were outside all the time.

    • A backyard and a garden is a wonderful place for all of the family.


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