This column originally appeared in The Scotsman (1 April 2021)

It is no secret that children learn through playing. A child develops sensory, physical, cognitive, social, emotional, language and cultural skills through play. However, play is more than just a tool for development; play is a feeling, a way of doing things, an essential part of living, an occupation that is important for the health and wellbeing of every child. Yet, despite the good intentions of policy makers and parents, there is growing evidence that children today are spending less time playing together, particularly outdoors, than ever before.

To change this, there needs to be a better understanding of play, what it is and what factors can support or limit it. What is more, we need to look at it not just from an adult perspective with the benefit of hindsight and the received wisdom of knowing what is good for us, but from the child’s viewpoint too. By encouraging children to tell us about their world and how they see it there is a good chance we could introduce fresh thinking into the four P’s - people, places, policies, and practises – that will influence play. 

A starting point for new research now taking place in Scotland and Europe is to use a broad perspective of play as an occupation. Funded through the EU, P4Play is a child-centred research programme in Occupational Science that aims to help address the challenges that many children face in play deprivation. 

So, what do we mean by occupation? Through Covid 19 restrictions, we have all become aware of the importance of what we need, want, or have to do on a daily basis - these are our occupations. They occupy our time, our thoughts, our actions, they make up the lives we live.  

Play, one of the primary occupations of children, happens in many ways. It can be solitary or with friends or parents; active or quiet; using energy, fantasy, creativity; great fun or quite serious; and it happens in many different places, indoors and outdoors, at home and in parks, playgrounds, streets and fields. Play is being affected not only by Covid-19 but by the shape of everyday life for us all in the 21st century and the importance of understanding play for all children is essential if we are to support, as adults, the kind of play that children need and want.  

P4Play is the first ever international collaboration in occupational science and occupational therapy that is aiming to take a scientific perspective on play for the sake of play. To understand play ‘as it is’, as a right for all children, researchers will be turning to children themselves, to ask them to be involved in describing, explaining, exploring with them what is important to them. 

By doing this we will begin to unpack some of the complex perspectives on play, with questions such as what sort of play children want and need, why is play good for local communities and what that means for families, society, and policy.  Understanding play as an essential aspect of how children live their lives is crucial to making sure we build the people, places, policies, and practises that will enable play to contribute to the health and wellbeing of Scotland’s future.

Dr Sarah Kantartzis