This study was part of a community engagement project between the Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy Department at University College Cork (UCC) and a local primary school, who wished to build an outdoor playspace on their school grounds. The aim of the project was to engage the school pupils in action research: to explore what the pupils of the school valued in outdoor play which in turn, would inform the content and design of the play space. The study began in 2015 and concluded in 2016 when the school completed the building project and the playspace was officially launched:



Evidence is emerging in many countries that children experience fewer opportunities for outdoor free play both at home and at school than in previous generations (Fanning, 2011; Kilkelly, Lynch, Moore, O’Connell and Field, 2016). This is thought to be a contributor to increased mental health difficulties and obesity in children.  Consequently, research has begun to study play in relation to health and wellbeing (Ginsburg, 2007), and specifically, outdoor play (e.g. Barron, 2013; Cole-Hamilton and Gleave, 2011; Kernan and Devine, 2010). School grounds have become a central part of this newly developing area of research. For example, in Australian schools, researchers found that when loose parts are introduced at break-time, levels of teamwork, constructive and creative play increased (Bundy et al., 2009; Bundy et al., 2011). In other studies, play diversity and activity increased by incorporating natural elements (Dyment and Bell, 2008; Fjortoft, 2001). Such work has led to a new interest in designing outdoor playspaces with high play-value. However, children have been typically excluded from having a say in designing their play environments, despite this being identified as important from a child’s-rights approach (National Children’s Office [NCO], 2004). This study aimed to research outdoor play space design from a child-centred approach: to explore the perspectives of children from one primary school in Ireland on their ideal play space. Ethical approval was granted by the Cork Research Ethics Committee, UCC, Ireland, 2015.


A qualitative ethnographic study was conducted to explore children’s ideas about their play spaces and outdoor play preferences (Holmes, 2005). A mosaic approach (Clark and Moss, 2008) was used to generate data in one city school, of mixed gender children aged from four to 12 years.



This project was a partnership project with a local school, therefore the recruitment site was established at the outset. All pupils of the school were invited to take part, and consent and assent sought from parents and children who attended the school. An information session was held in the school to explain the study, and letters sent out to the families to invite them to take part. Further information was shared with staff, parents, and children to ensure informed consent could be achieved, resulting in a final number of 269 participants for the project.


Data Generation:

All children who consented to take part, engaged in a combination of visual, language and spatial methods during data generation over four months. This included a) drawings from each of the 269 pupils b) observation of play during yard time c) focus groups of 18 children representing the range of ages among the children (4-6 years, 7-9 years and 10-12 years d) activities, including crafts and games e) meetings with the 14 teachers. The use of mapping or photography was not possible as the school did not yet have the playspace developed- the combination of methods chosen was to elicit the children’s ideas of their ideal play experiences by using visual drawings, and photographs of outdoor play gathered from online and printed sources. Depth and breadth of data was sought through exploring play affordances in the drawings and focus group discussions- e.g. children were asked about their feelings and emotions and mapped out what kinds of play experiences were most fun. This helped the children to move beyond simply listing swings or zip-lines, in the initial focus group work.


Data Analysis

Data from the initial focus groups were transcribed to text, and initial codes identified for discussion in the second focus group. Using charting methods, with words on cards, and pictures of playground equipment, the children engaged in an initial analysis and categorisation of ideas elicited from discussing the visual materials. Following this process, data were analysed using thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006). Data were coded manually in phases of coding and categorisation, guided by the research question. Core themes were identified that led to the development of three key findings supported by sub themes of what the children found to be the most important elements to their school play space.

Figure 1.  Inclusive design process.

Key Findings:

Table 1.     Three core themes and subthemes:


1) Ideas about Context

2) Ideas about Doing

3) Ideas about Meaning





Named Equipment




Risky play and challenge



Safety Awareness



Ideas about Context

Children identified three contextual aspects, relating to play space equipment, layout and nature. A consistent theme was the identification of equipment, important design features and what play they afford. Initially, children referred to familiar equipment from local playgrounds: Declan: “I’d like a basket swing, monkey bars and a zip wire”. However, as discussion progressed, children were encouraged to expand their ideas more about the play value of their play space. For example, the majority of the children preferred the ‘twisty’ slide in comparison to the ‘straight’ slide: Niall: “You never know where you are going to end up”. This demonstrates what kinds of play experiences the children preferred.

For the older children, the layout of play opportunities was important:  Charlie: “So like it could start here and... then you could have the mushrooms (toadstools to jump on) and then go like through the pipe ….and then you could climb over this and that could be the end of the obstacle course.” Furthermore, a separate area to sit and socialise was important for these children: Ciara: “I wanted the bench because it’s fun and also you can talk to your friends and just relax some days instead of just going playing”.

Children were of mixed opinions on whether nature should be integrated into the play space or allocated a specific area. Some children liked the idea of nature surrounding their playspace while others thought it was impractical: Aoife: “We could have a few flower gardens or something?”, Orla: “But that might attract the bees!”.


Ideas about Doing

A prominent theme that emerged was the need for a range of affordances that provides opportunities for different types of play. For example, when discussing why they liked spinning they responded: “I feel dizzy and I feel happy”, “I like it...because you can see everything very fast”. The younger children spoke of incorporating pretend play more than the older children when talking about play:  e.g. on the basket swing: Sam: “you go really fast...I jump off and destroy the ground”Lucy: “I pretend I’m an air pilot”, while the older groups would use it more to compete and challenge themselves: Declan: “well like you could make challenges and see who could go the highest and fastest”. Findings highlighted how all children sought challenge, which was linked to a sense of achievement, and included risky play: John “...going the fastest you feel kind of nervous because you are just going so fast and you’re not really being careful so like you don’t really know what you are doing”.

The concept of the ‘just-right challenge’ was prominent in discussions (Lynch and Hayes, 2015) when they explained their desired play space features that matched their ability: Caoimhe: “Not too easy and not too hard”. Aoife: “We could have a down low house because some people are afraid of heights”. This balance of risk versus safety was evident among all groups. One child expressed the desire to have a ‘shaky bridge’ over the prospective pond, however other children were concerned that they might fall in and get wet. They proposed a fence to prevent that from happening: Orla: “I was thinking of a pond but with fencing around it, so nobody could fall in”.


Ideas about Meaning

It became apparent during the process that the children were developing a sense of ownership over their play space. This was due to the inclusive approach adopted and the centrality of the children in the design of their outdoor play space: Mark, “I just have one more idea!” Orla, “I just have one more idea too”, as well as participants representing their class’ ideas in the focus groups: Jane “my friend drew a tree house”, Susan, “Some people in my class were saying like if you got a square trampoline and built it into the floor or something and you could like bounce off it”.

However, the process was also one of managing expectationsSome children found it difficult to gauge what was achievable for a play space, while others focused on more realistic ideas: Niall: “Maybe a petting zoo?”Luke responds: “That would be very expensive”. This supports the finding that children clearly took ownership of the planning and design of their play space when given the opportunity: Charlie: “I like Niamh’s idea with the pond, and maybe there could be like some fish?” Peter: “Yeah but who would feed the fish?”


Overall, findings highlight that the children were able to inform us of design features and affordances that matter to them, and valued having their voices heard.



The aim of this study was to use an inclusive approach to offer insights into what children perceived to be important constituents of a successful school playspace. From findings, these included:  fun, nature, risk, challenging design features, spaces for social play and safety. This was in some cases, at odds with what the adults considered as important: physical activity and time to run around. Overall, data informed the school to incorporate these varied needs in the design, and maximise the play value of the school yard. This is a significant issue as school playgrounds have become the primary outdoor play space for children in many westernised countries (Fanning, 2010).


The necessity of incorporating challenge and opportunities for risky play in the play space was an outcome of this study. This data is congruent with other studies where children’s natural propensity towards risky play was identified (Brussoni., Olsen, Pike and Sleet., 2012). Risky play is intrinsically motivating for children and can promote feelings of self-efficacy through overcoming a physical challenge (Bundy et al., 2011). Research evidence highlights that children lacking in opportunities to engage in risky and challenging play results in children looking elsewhere for challenge and misusing equipment which could be even more dangerous (Bundy et al., 2009).


This project explored one way to engage children in research over time guided by the Australian Heart Foundation project (2013). In this Australian project, researchers found that consulting with local children on the design of a community play space resulted in the children feeling responsible for the area, which in turn contributed to its upkeep and decrease in vandalism. This sense of responsibility was evident in the Irish study, through the children’s concern about maintaining the space. The participatory methods adopted appeared to foster a sense of ownership among the children, which was an unexpected outcome. Although children’s voice in play provision is identified as important (NCO], 2004), there are no Irish guidelines to date, on how to enable children’s participation in designing for play. Guidelines for participation in designing for play are needed to ensure children are supported to engage in their cultural and community lives and needs to be a priority for us in the play sector.



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Author information

Eimear Cagney and Chloe Carroll are Occupational Therapists, who conducted their final year research project under the direction of Dr. Helen Lynch: to explore children’s participation in designing for play. This project forms part of the Playspaces Project work that is an ongoing area of study in the department, from a Rights-Based Occupational Science perspective. Chloe and Eimear have gone o to work as Occupational Therapy practitioners in the UK and Australia, while Dr Lynch continues to progress play research locally and internationally through the European COST Project on Play for Children with Disabilities: Ludi: