Why playing matters and what we can all do about it

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Published in partnership with Cadw this information sheet aimed at parents and carers explores the importance of playing outside and contact with nature for all children and their families and it provides tips for supporting children to play out confidently.


  • Why playing matters and what we can all do about it

  • Playing contributes to the wellbeing and resilience of human beings - particularly young ones. Having welcoming places, enough time and the company of others to play with every day, is of great consequence to all children and young people - as adults we need to foster environments that support this.All children have the right to play as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is recognised both by the UK Government, and by the Welsh Government.

    Outside play and contact with nature why is it important Children come to understand, appreciate

    and care for the natural world through exposure, self-directed play and exploration

    Memories of childhood play in nature strengthen resources to cope with stress and encourages an interest in looking after the environment

    Playing in natural settings also contributes towards agility, balance, creativity, social cooperation and concentration.

    There are some essential components which need to be in place to promote childrens access to nature and outdoor play. These are permission, time, space and materials.

    PermissionWhen we reminisce about our childhoods many of us will recall happy times spent outdoors in nature. Children need permission from parents or carers to play outdoors. Parents and carers are subject to powerful and sometimes contradictory messages from the media about keeping children safe. However, this should not result in a child not being allowed access to outdoor play in

    a natural setting. It is important to keep our worriesinperspective.Thebenefitsofplayingoutdoors greatly outweigh the risks.

    Permission to play is often all many children need to play and a shift in attitude to one that values play is the single biggest change that adults can make to support childrens play. To demonstrate a supportive attitude towards outdoor play in nature we should ensure we do not:

    dismiss it as frivolous and a waste of time

    unnecessarily restrict it through fear

    over regulate and over organise it.

    TimeFor many reasons childrens time for outdoorplayhasdecreasedsignificantlyinrecent years. By making time for childrens outdoor play in nature we promote and value childrens freedom, independence and choice and these characteristics perform a crucial role in childrens resilience, ability to deal with stress and anxiety, and general wellbeing.

    While commercial spaces or products may offer new opportunities they do so at the cost of the loss of control children have over their ownplay.Thisisasignificantlossasthecentral point about play is the control it offers children.

    Central to this behaviour is that children can choose how and why they play. The level of control children have over their own play

  • is part of what makes it play, along with its characteristicsofflexibility,unpredictability,spontaneity and imagination.

    SpaceCharacteristics of quality childrens spaces include opportunities for wonder, excitement and the unexpected, but most of all opportunities that are not overly ordered and controlled by adults. These spaces are crucial to childrens own culture and for their sense of place and belonging. Childrens spaces are preferably outdoor spaces. Given the choice children still prefer to play outdoors and value the independence and opportunities for discovery that it offers.

    MaterialsWhile children can and will play anywhere and with almost anything, there are resources we can provide that can facilitate and encourage play such as sand, water, shells, fabric, buckets, boxes, rope, tyres, bottles, wood and scrap materials of all kinds. Such materials are cheap and accessible, simply leave a pile of them for children to explore and you will be amazed at the motivation and intensity of childrens play.

    Children who play outdoors with others do not need many toys. By providing perhaps just a few well-chosen toys but numerous loose parts we can enrich the play space and facilitate play.

    Loose parts refers to anything that can be moved around, carried, rolled, lifted, piled one on top of the other or combined to create interesting and novel structures and experiences.
















    Shells and seedpods.

    Loose parts can be natural or synthetic and include:

  • Play in a natural setting can include:

    Watching birds, insects or animals

    Building dens

    Playing with sand and water

    Foraging and exploring forests


    Climbing trees

    Collecting and categorising.

    Having loose parts available allows children to use the materials as they choose. Providing loose parts supports children to play in many different ways and on many different levels. Environments that include loose parts tend to be more stimulating and engaging than static ones. Loose parts promote and support imaginative play as they allow children to develop their own ideas and explore their world.

    Playing in a space rich with loose parts supports a wide range of development includingflexibility,creativity,imagination,resourcefulness, problem solving, self-esteem and spatial awareness.

    Playing is important and we should take action to promote and protect it.

    We must listen to what children say about their play and genuinely value their contributions.

    We must consider childrens play spaces as important environments that should be protected.

    We should advocate that childrens play is essential for healthy development and wellbeing. It is a legitimate behaviour and their human right and this applies to children playing indoors and outdoors.

    Childrens play is often chaotic, frantic and noisy, and childrens play spaces are often messy, disordered and idiosyncratic. We need to understand that childrens conception of a desirable play space does not look like an adults. We need to be tolerant of mess and dirt!

    We can support childrens play by providing loose parts and rejecting over-commercialism.

    We can prioritise childrens time to play freely. If we over-supervise or over-protect we take away the childs free choice and the very thing that makes their behaviour play.

    New Model Army Photography

  • Tips for supporting children to play out confidently

    Weallhavearesponsibilitytosupportandprepareourchildrentoplayoutconfidentlyintheircommunity.Playingoutbenefitschildrenaswellastheirparents,carersandthewidercommunity. Supporting children to play out in their community contributes to creating a play-friendly and cohesive community.

    To encourage parents and carers and local communities to support children playing out confidentlythesetoptipsmayhelp:

    1. Prepare children to be road safe Streets make up the major part of public space within communities. We can prepare children from an early age by telling them and showing them ways to keep themselves safe on and around roads.

    2. Look to our own driving habits Parentsareoftenconcernedabouttrafficwhen giving children permission to play out. As drivers, we can drive at safe speeds in the same way we would wish others to drive in the residential streets where our children play.

    3. Help children get to know their neighbourhood If we are less reliant on travelling by car ourselves in our local communities, children will get to know their local streets. Walking to and from local facilities such as the shops, school and the park can help us identify solutions together with our children to keep themselves safe.

    4. Be community friendly We can get to know local people, neighbours and other families, and agree with each other to keep an eye out for

    children. This fosters a sense of a safe community, allowing more children to play out more, and to be safer doing so.

    5. Trust children We can make agreements with children on where and how long they go out to play. If they know their local area, their address and phone number, whom they can call on, and tell the time, it helps to make those arrangements.

    6. Be realistic Keeping our worries in perspective and knowing neighbours and local residents on which you can call if you have any concernswillhelp.Thebenefitsofplayingout far outweigh the risks.

    7. Make a change We can join with others locally to campaign for changes to our neighbourhood that may make our local areas places where children can play outconfidently.Wecanpromotetheimportance of playing out to other people within our neighbourhoods by word of mouth or holding community events and letting others know about them.

  • Play Wales is the national organisation for childrens play, an independent charity supportedby the Welsh Government to uphold childrens right to play and to provide advice and guidanceon play-related matters.

    May 2015 Play Wales


    Registered charity, no. 1068926A company limited by guarantee, no 3507258Registered in Wales