Playing outdoors: What do children do, where and with whom?

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There is an increasing interest in outdoor play, both in research and in policy. However, in (re)designing, planning and managing the public space, there is still limited attention for children’s actual playing behaviour.

A lot of urban planning decisions are based on adults’ perceptions of children’s playing behavior and focus on formal play spaces, rather than on their actual behavior and on other, more informal, play places children might also use, says urban geographer Gerben Helleman about a new study into children’s play.

Therefore, the purpose of this study was to explore where children play outdoors, with whom and what kind of activities they are performing there. Between February 2022 and March 2023 1,127 – mainly primary school – children were systematically observed after school in three post-war residential districts in three cities in The Netherlands. The majority of the children were between 5-8 years old (50 per cent).

Above the age of 8 years, substantially more boys (70 per cent) than girls (30 per cent) were playing outdoors. Most of the children (79 per cent) were playing with other children, eight per cent were playing alone. The playground was the most popular play space (36 per cent of the observed children were playing there), followed by public sports fields (14 per cent) and sidewalks (13 per cent). With respect to the type of activities, relaxing (21 per cent) was the most common activity, followed by ball sports (14 per cent), climbing or hanging (11 per cent), swinging (10 per cent), and riding on wheels (nine per cent).

This study showed differences in play behaviour by gender, age, district and play space and stress the need for a broader definition of play, and for focusing on formal as well as informal play spaces.

This is an abstract from an article published in the Journal of Childhood, Education & Society, based on research by Gerben and his colleagues Ivan Nio and Sanne de Vries into child-friendly and play-friendly cities. The focus was on children’s play behaviour in public space, centred on three districts in The Netherlands. The abstract is republished here under Creative Commons licensing guidelines. Click here for links to the full article.

Gerben Helleman is an urban geographer based in The Netherlands, and the author of the blog Urban Springtime.

Author: Gerben Helleman

Gerben Helleman is a father and urban geographer from The Netherlands with a strong passion for public spaces. His research and writings on his blog Urban Springtime are about the interaction between the ‘Planned City’ and the ‘Lived city’. Giving insights in the relation between ‘the city as it is designed and made by professionals’ versus ‘the city as it is experienced and filled in by its residents’.

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