The occupation of play has a special place in children’s lives as it underpins well-being, health, and development of children, and is influenced by their social, cultural, and political worlds (Lynch and Moore, 2016). From a rights-based perspective, all children have a right to play, rest and leisure under Article Thirty-One of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989). Under Article Two of the CRC, children with disabilities are equally entitled to enjoy this right without discrimination. However, children with disabilities are frequently excluded from play, in particular from accessing and using outdoor playspaces, denying them their full enjoyment of their rights. Thus, play provision becomes an issue of social in/exclusion and social support in such instances requires us to consider how best to address provision for outdoor play to promote social inclusion.
In 2016, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has established a review of the Irish Play Policy, which was first instituted in 2004 (National Children’s Office, 2004). At that time, it was stated that the focus in Irish policy was generally limited to physical accessibility for children getting to and from a playground, with no guidelines in existence on usability of playgrounds for all children (Webb, 2003). This paper outlines findings from five recent studies that have been carried out, to see what, if anything, has changed since 2004: to explore play provision in community settings in order to establish the state of play in particular for children with disabilities in Ireland.
While it is acknowledged that play is fundamental for children, playing outdoors is particularly important as a focus of research. In this field of study, outdoor playspace is the term used to encompass all outdoor areas where children play: including local parks, playgrounds, natural community places, school yards and gardens. Outdoor play has a significant role in children’s general health and well-being, partly because of the connection with nature, which strongly impacts on physical and mental health of children, especially when allowed to play freely (Gill, 2014). Contact with nature helps people recover from stress (Ulrich, 1991; Wells and
Evans, 2003) and is self-restorative for children (Korpela, Ylen, Tyrvainen, and Silvennoinen, 2008), while spending time in nature promotes better attention and decreases symptoms of ADHD (Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan 2001; Kuo and Faber, 2004). Studies have reported positive effects on children from playing in natural environments (Fjortoft and Sageie, 2000). This is partly attributed to the flexibility of outdoor playspaces where there are larger spaces for movement alongside the availability of moving parts. Not surprisingly, access to the outdoor environment has been identified as a significant predictor of physical activity (Sallis, Prochaska,
and Taylor, 2000). Furthermore, outdoor playspaces are known to be important sites for social learning (Beunderman, 2010) and in
general, are sites for social inclusion (Prellwitz, 2007). Playing can overcome cultural and social boundaries and enables children to understand others who they might consider different from themselves (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005).
However, researchers in other countries have found that children with disabilities experience significantly reduced participation in play (King et al., 2009) and are at risk of health and social difficulties (Kolehmainen et al., 2011). They are often excluded from outdoor play due to many factors such as physical inaccessibility, attitudinal barriers, and poor social supports (Anaby, et al., 2013). In studies of participation of children with coordination difficulties such as Cerebral Palsy or Developmental Coordination Disorder,
research shows that attitudinal barriers are more prevalent than barriers due to the physical environment (Poulsen, Ziviani and Cuskelly, 2007; Anaby et al., 2013). The child’s own skills can contribute to difficulties in participating in outdoor play on an equal basis with others. For example, children with physical disabilities can have limitations in movement which further limits participation in play (Law et al., 2004), while many children with Autism Spectrum Disorder experience significant difficulties in sensory processing that impact on participation in activities including social play (Baranek et al., 2006; Baker et al., 2008; Tomcheck and Dunn, 2007; Ben-Sasson et al., 2009). To date however, research has primarily been examining participation in structured after-school leisure activities. Few studies have focused specifically on researching outdoor free-play with children with disabilities. Yet we know that from a child’s perspective, play is highly important and is a significant contributor to well-being (Coyne, Dempsey, Comiskey and O’Donnell, 2012).
Since 2014, a research programme has been developed in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University College Cork, to begin to explore play needs of children in Ireland from a rights-based approach to social inclusion. Five exemplars are briefly outlined below, to determine the state of play evidence and identify a way forward. Through establishing this programme of research, it is hoped that the goal of addressing discrimination and social exclusion through consideration of the physical characteristics of play environments can be addressed.
Project One: Scoping review of playground environments
The aim of this study was to establish what is known about accessibility and usability of public playgrounds, guided by the UNCRC,
which establishes the rights for children to have accessible and inclusive environments available to them. Accessibility is enabled when the child’s functional capacity is matched well with the demands of the physical environment. In contrast, usability refers to the capacity for all people to equally access and use the environment (Iwarsson and Stahl, 2003). Fourteen studies were identified that had examined playground usability and accessibility for children under twelve years of age. Synthesis of evidence suggested that playgrounds are frequently inaccessible and unusable for many children, with few guidelines on designing for social inclusion; no studies were identified that have researched design, usability, or social inclusion in playgrounds in Ireland (Moore and Lynch, 2015).
Project Two: Heritage Council review of children's connection with the outdoors
The Heritage Council commissioned this project to report on the connection between children and the outdoors in contemporary Ireland. From the desk-based and qualitative data with 123 children, the report identified that children experience the outdoors primarily through play. However, there is a lack of policy in Ireland that supports children’s engagement with the outdoors. Furthermore, there is a lack of data on children’s lives to guide policy in relation to play needs and play preferences (Kilkelly et al., 2015: Moore, 2015).
Project Three: Usability and accessibility of Fitzgerald’s Park, Cork
This project was undertaken to explore the question: “Do Universal Design guidelines translate to usability? The qualitative study
explored the experiences of nine children with special needs, aged nine to sixteen years, in using the new universally designed playground in Cork city centre. Universal Design is the “design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability” (National Disability Authority, 2016). Similar to other studies, findings identified that parts of the playground were unusable for some individuals due to individual differences in play styles combined with the flow and design of the playspace (Prellwitz and
Skar, 2007; Ripat and Becker, 2012). There is a lack of data on play preferences of children with different disabilities, which needs to be considered in future playground research (Barron et al., 2016). This lack of knowledge, in addition to the lack of clear guidelines on designing usable and accessible playgrounds (Moore and Lynch, 2015), contributes to the ongoing challenges in providing equitable play opportunities for children in public playgrounds in Ireland.
Project Four: Whole school approach: an inclusive approach to designing for play in the school-yard
In this study, a whole-school approach was employed to research with children in a local primary school about their play preferences for outdoor play to inform the redesign of the playground. The study was guided by a rightsbased approach to children having a say in play provision (UNCRC General Comment 17). All children contributed to the study, with eighteen taking part in six focus groups to support data analysis and synthesis. The outcome was a report to the school to guide the provision of a new playspace, which was subsequently built and officially opened, June 2016 (see http://www. gaelscoiluiriada.ie/nuachtnews/cul-anti-oscailtoifigiuil/? lang=en). One finding from this study was that there is a need for Irish guidelines on good practice, in designing for play with children (see examples from other countries: UK: Dunn, Moore and Murray, 2003; Australia: National Heart Foundation, 2013). This was established as one of the objectives of the Irish Play Policy, yet to date no progress has been made on this issue.
Project Five: Ludi COST Project: Play for Children with Disabilities (2014-2017)
Ludi is a European COST initiative, aimed to establish a network of researchers who are experts on play for children with disabilities. The need for the Ludi forum came about as play is as yet an underexplored and fragmented area of study, and consists of disparate fields including landscape architecture, education, rehabilitation, occupational science, and robotics (see http://ludinetwork.
eu/). The first phase of the Ludi project involved a review of barriers to play for children with disabilities: significantly, across Europe, it was found that there are few guidelines on designing for play. Furthermore, children with disabilities are rarely represented in research on play needs, barriers, and preferences (Barron et al., 2016).
To summarise, these studies show that although the Irish Play Policy identified the importance of child-centred, inclusive, equitable play provision for children, little progress has been made to date to progress this agenda. There are no national guidelines for designing for play, for including children and communities in designing for play, and a continued lack of evidence from Irish play research. The Play Policy hoped to progress play research through use of the longitudinal study: Growing Up in Ireland. Yet to date, there is little evidence of data being extrapolated on play itself, separate to sport, exercise, and leisure. For example, Better Outcomes Brighter Futures (2014) and the National Physical Activity Plan for Ireland (Department of Health, 2016), both use data on sport and exercise to inform policy. Indeed, the NPAP recommends physical activity in early childhood as an action. However, play is not the same as leisure, sport, or exercise but in older children is often seen as interchangeable (Lynch and Moore, 2016). While exercise is important as an action for children, it communicates an adultist perspective on health and fitness, rather than focusing on the natural form of activity that young children engage in, i.e. play occupation. From a rights-based approach, the centrality of play in early childhood needs to be acknowledged to support evidence-informed policy developments particularly considering the current Play Policy review and the pending Early Years Strategy.
Finally, there is a significant need to focus research on the experiences and play preferences and needs of children with disabilities in Ireland. Furthermore, there is a need to concurrently research whole outdoor play environments (not just built or public) to
identify how to reduce barriers to participation for these children. Although the Irish Play Policy established these as important issues of concern in 2004, without governmental support and investment, few actions were implemented. However, since 2004, the international community rallied to produce the General Comment 17 (United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2013) that urges states to take play seriously, followed by the Internal Play Associations position statement on the play rights of disabled children (2015). There is an international awareness of the importance of play, and the threat of play deprivation: perhaps this time things will be different for Ireland’s play agenda.