What comes to mind when we think of “play”? Is play something that only children engage in, or can adults play, and be playful, too? As there are a myriad of physical, cognitive, emotional, and social benefits of play for children, why don’t more adults engage in play? Should we consider it to be at the forefront of how we design and make the places we live?
Want to learn more about local government and play? Read our bulletin Global Local: Play packed with practical guidance and inspiring practice. Find out more about Global Local bulletins and get new insights to your inbox each week for free.
The benefits of play for all ages
Play is, in essence, something that is fun and enjoyable for all ages. Yet it is also fundamental in physical, cognitive, emotional and social development, particularly of children, as they learn to interact and understand themselves, other people, and the world they are part of. There are specific benefits to outdoor play, which is something the Scottish Government recognises, and the need to embed outdoor play in the everyday lives of children.
Play that involves lots of movement such as running and jumping— sports like a spontaneous game of football, or games like tig— promotes and encourages physical activity which can lead to increased cardiovascular fitness. When we are active we develop strong muscles and bones, and maintain a healthy weight. In play such as water play to tree climbing (as opposed to more structured and purposeful physical activity) there is the opportunity to develop fine and gross motor skills, coordination, balance and agility. Play-based activities such as outdoor den building and memory games that require mental engagement have cognitive benefits including improving attention and concentration, enhancing problem-solving, encouraging creativity and imagination, fostering representation skills to conceptualise surroundings, and helping develop self-discipline and focus. Social skills are significantly developed through play as individuals learn to interact with others— including negotiation, cooperation, sharing, and developing resilience, while also fostering empathy and awareness of others. Games and activities such as nature trails and orienteering help develop self-awareness, confidence, independence and choice making, and an interest in learning. Play furthermore allows individuals to explore their feelings and emotions, can help relieve stress, manage anxiety and allow individuals become more at ease with themselves and the world around them.
Seeing play as integrated into our everyday lives
While these benefits of play are recognised, this piece seeks to take this further by raising questions about where and how we play— and in what ways is play integrated into our lives at all ages. Do we consider play as something spontaneous, happening wherever and whenever the opportunity arises, or is it something organised, planned and structured like recreational sports, meaning it is segregated and separated from day to day of life? Like the phrase “work, rest, and play”; Distinct, separate and disconnected.
Arguably conventional approaches to urban planning have come to reflect this separation, with designated areas for work, rest (our homes), and play (parks, sports facilities, etc.). Changes in technology, and the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and our post-lockdown world, have blurred these lines. For example, we now have come to work and play from the places we call home, with an increase in home working, and home-based exercise equipment becoming more commonplace.
However, can we envision a different approach, one where play becomes seamlessly integrated into our lives and the very fabric of the places we live? If you have ever taken a bus journey with a child, or maybe a walk, you’ll have encountered this mindset. ‘I’ll race you to the bus stop’, or ‘Can you spot interesting things out the window as we travel?’ come naturally to children and their playful nature. This is a way of being an active participant in the world— a way of learning, understanding it, and being part of it. Perhaps, looking at things from a child’s perspective we can embody the child that is in all of us, and see play differently.
Play, travel and the sustainability challenge
How we physically move and travel within the places we live— our villages, towns, and cities— is a fundamental issue that intersects across many contemporary sustainability challenges. Transport and mobility issues touch on climate change to air quality, noise and stress, congestion and public space, physical activity and mental health and wellbeing, cost of living and access to core services and work. While we have sought to address the challenge of carbon emissions from fossil fuels— with some success in terms of reducing emissions from electricity production for example— carbon emissions from transport have remained quite static over a period of time. The current focus on shifting to electric vehicles might offer some benefit in terms of emissions, but what about those other issues? A traffic jam of electric vehicles is still congestion. An electrified version of our car-centric transport system does not realise the opportunity for the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of alternative, and active, forms of mobility for those that can and would like to incorporate them into their lives.
Is there an opportunity to be playful in the way we move and interact with each other and the places we live, and to reimagine the act of everyday mobility and transport in terms of play, and playfulness? If forms of active travel through means such as cycling, walking and wheeling can be integrated into the daily lives of communities, there is the opportunity to realise the aforementioned benefits associated with play, but also much wider positive social, economic and environmental outcomes and practices (see this piece from The Conversation and the wider range of research by Sustrans).
In previous work for LGIU I have written about the integration of outdoor lifestyles into the fabric and culture of some of the Nordic nations. It is notable play is embedded into the fabric of places more distinctly than is often the case in the UK— inner-city play parks, for example, are commonplace— but also in terms of supporting adults being playful in terms of facilities and cultural locations. Many of these integrate with the design of place and transport more generally— from bike parking at train stations to more subtle forms (for example, one of my favourite things I have come across in the small play spaces that can be found on some inter-city Finnish trains!
Play as part of urban planning decision making
Local governments are under pressure to deliver services in a time when budgets have been squeezed over a number of years. Developing and maintaining places and services related to play are vulnerable to being overlooked as part of that trend. But, there is a way around this by intersecting play with other wider priority issues where decisions are made through the lens of increased space and provision for play. At the same time, local governments need to meet climate change and associated place and transport-related ambitions and developments. Low Emissions Zones and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods can all support increases space for movement and play, and decisions underpinning these shifts are a recognition that there is a pressing need to reimagine ways we live and move in the places we inhabit. However, recent framing of these interventions in the media has shown these can be difficult to communicate, implement and integrate, and have been met with some resistance from members of the public. By framing them in terms of play might we be able to develop more acceptance of their benefits?
Recognising the multitude physical, social, and cognitive benefits of play to children, and adults alike, especially in the outdoors, how can we include play in the everyday lives of people? What opportunities arise from reframing travel and place-related interventions in terms of play, and playfulness? And, crucially, how can our places be designed to support citizens and communities to be more playful?
Dr. James Bonner is currently undertaking a research associate position with the Physical Activity for Health Group, Department of Psychological Sciences & Health at the University of Strathclyde. He is contributor to the evolving interdisciplinary Active Mobility Hub at the University. www.actify.org.uk/strath-activemobility