Real Play Families: Executive Report
Background to Real Play Families
The importance of quality play experiences for children’s physical, social, and emotional development is well established. Play provides opportunities for children to be physically active, and enhances motor, social and communicative skills, cognitive abilities, resilience, wellbeing, and creativity.1-3 Over the last three decades, however, children in the developed world have shifted from mostly unstructured, unsupervised, outdoor play to structured, supervised, and/or indoor activities.4,5 Modern outdoor public and school playgrounds are typically static structures designed by adults to support a predetermined set of activities that prioritise injury prevention above all else.6,7 Furthermore, as parental efforts to safeguard their children increase, opportunities for children to engage in risky and unstructured ‘real’ play diminish.8 Play spaces created by adults habitually align with their own perspective of children’s play preferences, with safety being a key factor. This frequently leads to brightly coloured and highly structured play spaces, whereas it appears that children prefer to play in natural outdoor environments.9
There is a growing concern that our increasingly risk averse society is contributing to a generation of ‘bubble-wrapped’ children that have limited opportunities to play creatively, instigate physical activity, overcome challenges independently, and learn to manage risks appropriately. 6,7,10,11
To gain a better understanding of how kiwi parents view real play, AUT University partnered with Persil NZ to conduct a nationwide survey of play perceptions and practices. The State of Play Survey collected data from over 2,000 NZ parents, and included a wide range of questions about real play engagement, risk tolerance, active transport, independent mobility, and screen time. Our interpretation of real play was largely based on the definition of risky play by Ellen Sandseter.12,13 In her seminal work, she identifies six main components of risky play that we incorporated into the survey design: (1) play at great heights, (2) play with high speed, (3) play with dangerous tools, (4) play near dangerous elements, (5) rough-and-tumble play, and (6) play where children can ‘disappear’. We have also added two additional components to broaden our concept of real play: play with loose objects (e.g., sticks, timber, tyres, tarpaulins) and ‘messy’ play (e.g., mud, dirt, sand, water, paint). Some of the key findings of the State of Play survey are listed below.
[ Most NZ parents recognise the potential developmental benefits of real play, and believe that children need to be exposed to some form of risk to develop their risk management skills.
[ However, the majority of children do not often participate in a wide range of real play activities; in fact, a reasonable proportion does not engage in real play at all.
[ Only a relatively small proportion of parents regularly allow their children to play outside when it is raining.
[ Less than half of kiwi kids aged 8-12 years are allowed to travel alone in their neighbourhood, with only 5% doing so often.
[ Key reasons identified by parents for restricting independent roaming are the likelihood of road accidents (73.2%) and of encountering ill-intentioned adults (59.9%).
[ Parental tolerance of risk was the number one predictor of whether or not their children engage in real play.