How welcoming is your community to children? The community or neighbourhood is an important outdoor play resource in childhood. A child’s health and wellbeing, sense of place and space and community citizenship depends on the child’s ability to independently move around its local area. Developmentally, children need to grow their horizons and children who intimately know their local area do so and are safer than children who don’t.

However, for many children the neighborhood is no longer seen as a place to play and explore. Outdoor free play is in decline across Australia and the developing world and the reasons for this decline are complex and multi-dimensional.
There is, however, a growing recognition of the need to reactivate outdoor play and build communities that not only enable outdoor play, but value and celebrate it. Cross-departmental collaboration and wide community support are essential to bridge the gap between the lack of daily outdoor free play and a full and healthy childhood. Outdoor Play is Everybody’s Business!


This document is part of series of evidence-based position statements focused on childhood and outdoor free play. They aim to demonstrate the importance, benefits, issues as well as the actions required to support children to grow healthy, happy and strong through regular daily outdoor free play.  
What follows is the product of a thorough examination of key community benefits and issues associated with daily outdoor free play in modern childhood. Central to this document are key considerations and recommendations to enable real and meaningful changes that both safeguard childhood and support child development.  

COMMUNITY BENEFITS - Outdoor free play builds strong, happy and healthy communities

  • Outdoor free play helps children develop their connections with their community, environment and a sense of place (e.g. Pacilli et al, 2013; Keniger et al, 2013).
  • Through outdoor free play children develop socialisation and interpersonal skills (empathy, negotiation, compromise, leadership, self-confidence, self-awareness and self-regulation), motor skills and physical literacy, enhanced sense of curiosity, resilience and problem-solving skills and a sense of agency (e.g. Beyer et al., 2014; Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Hughes, 2007).  All elements are needed to become active community and environmentally conscious adults.
  • Outdoor free play is essential for children’s physical and mental health (e.g. AEDC, 2015) and the broader health of the community.
  • Children who have more freedom to roam unsupervised and those who spend time with friends outdoors have higher levels of physical activity (Page & Cooper, 2014; Wheeler et al., 2010).
  • Children who are physically active are less likely to suffer from acute or chronic health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure and are less likely to be overweight or obese (e.g. AEDC, 2016).
  • Children who are physically active outdoors have enhanced psychological wellbeing and reductions in stress, anxiety and depression (e.g. AEDC, 2016).
  • Through outdoor play children develop healthy habits and attitudes for adulthood (e.g. Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, USA; Department of Health, UK; Federal Ministry of Health, Germany; The Department of Health, Australia).
  • Children who do not have opportunities to play particularly outdoors and with other children demonstrate increased evidence of anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and narcissism (Gray, 2011; Jarvis, Newman & Swiniarski, 2014).
  • The quality of the outdoor environment enhances children’s benefits from outdoor free play, with undeveloped green space being related to increased physical activity (Janssen & Rosu, 2015).
  • Opportunities for free play in childhood is a predictor on social success and individual adaptability (Greve and Thomson, 2016; Barker et al., 2014; Lillard et al., 2013).
  • ‘Risky’ play develops children’s ability to respond to challenge, understand themselves and others, gain competency, test limits, decrease conflict sensitivity, problem solve, explore boundaries and overcome fear (Brussoni et al., 2015; Gill, 2007; Greenfield, 2004; Lavrysen et al., 2015; Little and Wyver, 2008).

THE PROBLEM - The decline of outdoor free play is a growing community issue in Australia

  • Until the 1980’s nearly all suburban Australian homes had large backyards by international standards and house footprints covered 20 – 30% of the land.  Since the 1990’s this has changed with substantial backyards disappearing and dwellings covering most of the developable area (Hall, 2010; Spurrier et al., 2008).
  • Changes in community design and structure including wide roads, more cars, reduced line of sight, high fences, increased traffic and a loss or reduction in neighbourhood greenspace have decreased play opportunities (Long, 2007).
  • Children spend less time outdoors in nature and more time indoors, sedentary and watching or engaging with a screen (Brussoni et al., 2015; Bell et al., 2015; Mc Curdy et al. 2010).
  • Only 19% of Australian children aged 5-17 years meet physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day (AHAK, 2016).
  • Less than 20% of Australian children aged 5 -17 meet overall recommended physical activity levels (AHAK, 2016).
  • Only 26% of 2-4 year olds and 30% of 5-17 year olds meet the sedentary behaviours screen time guidelines every day (AHAK 2016).
  • According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, (2016) anxiety disorders form the second highest source of burden of disease among 5-14 year old boys and depressive disorders fall within the top 5. For girls aged 5-14 years old, anxiety disorders are identified as the top source of burden of disease with depressive disorders identified as the 3rd source.
  • Only 26% of children aged 5-14 have a Body Mass Index (BMI) score that is above the international scale for ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ for their age and sex (AIHW, 2016).
  • According to the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) (2015), 1 in 5 children are developmentally vulnerable across at least one measured domain. The proportion of children vulnerable in physical health and wellbeing, social competence and emotional maturity increased in 2015 from previous results.
  • In Queensland 1 in 4 children are identified as developmentally vulnerable in one or more domains (26.1%); the percentage of children developmentally vulnerable in each domain and in one or two or more domains is higher than in any other state other than the Northern Territory (AEDC, 2015).
  • Children from racial or ethnic minorities, particularly in urban environments and those from low socio-economic backgrounds are disadvantaged in their access to natural areas for play and frequency of visits to natural / green spaces.
  • Boys are also more likely to engage in outdoor free play than girls (Hunt et al., 2016).

KEY CONSIDERATIONS – Reducing barriers and enhancing opportunities for outdoor free play

  • Parental habits and fears are key barriers to children’s outdoor unstructured play (Carver, 2008; Crawford et al., 2015; Jago et al., 2009).
  • Latent and existing social structures can be called upon to build a play culture within communities that not just tolerates and permits play, but sees play as a valuable, important and desirable component of children’s lives and community activity (Little, 2017).
  • Initiatives to reactivate outdoor play can include community and media events, social media campaigns and ‘grass-roots’ initiatives (Little, 2017),
  • The involvement of communities, children and families in planning decisions can enhance planning outcomes and create a sense of community ownership (Hyndman & Telford, 2015).
  • Unlike the workplace, children need risk to grow and develop. A considered approach to include risk is required to meet children’s needs and grow their love for outdoor play.
  • While risk management is important, outdoor free play is too important to manage risk by removing, preventing access or restricting the movement of children.
  • Children’s perceptions of appealing play environments are different to adult perceptions. Children prefer facilities that are challenging and not traditional (Aziz and Siad, 2012).
  • Overly engineered and landscaped, formal playgrounds and planned spaces can be boring to the child (Aziz and Siad, 2012).
  • Children are motivated to play for a variety of reasons: fun, to prevent boredom, to be free from adult control, rules and structure (Brockman, Jago and Fox, 2011).
  • Diverse outdoor spaces encourage different types of play; for example field and parklands provide for free running or ball games, while bush and trees provide opportunities for exploration, adventure and/or hide and seek (Hyndman & Telford, 2015).
  • Enablers for play include: spaces that are not too crowded, trees for shade and climbing and separating smaller children from bigger children (Hyndman & Telford, 2015).
  • Children prefer natural landscape features in their play (Azlina and Zulkiflee, 2012).
  • Having to overcome elements of danger or challenges are important motivators for children. Risk taking helps to prevent boredom and provides motivation for movement and builds confidence (Miller & Kuhaneck, 2008).
  • Children prefer to play in the company of friends, siblings or pets (Miller & Kuhaneck, 2008).
  • Managing traffic, traffic calming and providing safe walking and cycling access routes are essential to facilitating outdoor free play (Zhang & Li, 2012).
  • Diversity of routes for movement (green space, footpaths, cycle/walk infrastructure) was related to increased outdoor play for girls 7-9 years and boys 10-12 years (Aarts et al, 2010).
  • Street networks that include cul-de-sacs and easily accessible green spaces can maximise outdoor active play (Brockman, Jago and Fox; Aziz and Siad, 2012).
  • Green spaces need to be located centrally, not on the edge of neighbourhoods to allow easy access (Zhang & Li, 2012).
  • Children residing within 800m of their school, or within 300m of a local green space were more likely to access these spaces independently than children who have to travel further (Whitzman & Mazrachi, 2009).
  • Children’s Independent Mobility (CIM) is increased by a critical mass of families or other children providing company and an expectation the children will play in public spaces (Whitzman & Mazrachi, 2009; Whitzman, 2010).
  • Initiatives that normalise street play such as ‘Playing Out’ or ‘Street Play’ initiatives in the UK have been shown to strengthen neighbourhood cohesion and increased play opportunities for children (Page & Cooper, 2014).
  • Many factors facilitate street play including: council support for street closures and prioritising street closures near a park, so the street can become an extension of the park. Involving the community and children is essential in planning and implementation (Whitzman & Mazrachi, 2009).
  • There are benefits in creating connected hierarchies of parks and trails (e.g. pocket parks to conservation reserves) that are accessible natural spaces that can be accessed through active transport (Little, 2017).
  • The introduction of ‘loose parts’ can provide variety, options and choice in children’s play (Hyndman and Telford, 2015).

NEXT STEPS -  Aligning Outdoor Play and Community

Strengthening children and their communities

There is a growing recognition of the value of enabling children to connect with their community and each other and the important role neighbourhoods and local communities play in making this happen. Children’s access to daily outdoor free play is an indicator of the strength, health and happiness of their communities. Conversely, outdoor free play helps children develop, prosper and connect with their neighbourhood and build a strong, healthy and happy community.

There is a growing recognition of the contribution of children’s daily outdoor free play makes in creating connected and cohesive communities. A number of local governments have created specific nature play parks and invested in other initiatives that aim to get families and children outdoors.  At the same time, community grassroots initiatives to reactivate neighbourhoods such as street play, street libraries and verge gardens are gaining traction and legitimacy with local governments.

Nature Play QLD engages the community through nature play events, social media campaigns and the provision of free resources to families and community organisations. Nature Play QLD’s Neighbourhood Forums not only promote the importance of outdoor free play, they also provide an opportunity for important community discussions around barriers that impact on children’s mobility and neighbourhood social connections. Nature Play QLD has also been strengthened by partnerships with city and regional councils including Brisbane City Council, Ipswich City Council, City of Gold Coast Council and Logan City Council.

Nature Play QLD would like to invite state and local government departments involved in community development to continue to build and strengthen their engagement and leadership regarding outdoor free play to gain the myriads of benefits this offers their communities. Five key suggestions are:

  1. Working with Nature Play QLD to develop resources to increase awareness of the importance of outdoor free play and community strategies for reactivating outdoor free play,
  2. Meeting with Nature Play QLD and other relevant children’s interest groups to discuss possible ways outdoor free play and children’s independent mobility can be integrated into relevant policies, strategies and initiatives,
  3. Developing and strengthening policy and procedures that enable and celebrate community initiatives such as street play, street libraries, active travel and verge gardens that promote neighbourhood communication and cohesion,
  4. Sending delegates to attend and actively participate in Nature Play QLD’s Childhood Summit in 2019,
  5. Exploring potential funding opportunities for advocacy and direct initiatives such as street play, which increase children’s access to outdoor free play


The Outdoor Play is Everybody’s Business Position Statements were developed by Nature Play QLD

Ph: 07 3367 1989



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