Daily outdoor play is essential for fostering children’s physical and mental development, building their creativity and resilience and ensuring that they are socially and spatially connected. Many people feel that neighbourhoods have lost their sense of community and are not welcoming to children. Adult driven agendas often guide infrastructure and planning creating highly challenging barriers to children’s outdoor play opportunities and contributing to community and parental fears related to child safety. Yet keeping the play and mobility needs of children at the centre of infrastructure and planning decisions, is essential to build strong, happy, healthy children and connected communities.

Outdoor free play is in decline across Australia and the developing world.  Reasons for this decline are complex and multi-dimensional. Cross-departmental collaboration and wide community support are essential to address the growing gap between daily outdoor free play and a full and healthy childhood.
It is time for a child-centred approach to infrastructure and planning, with a recognition that restrictions on children’s mobility and play can have long lasting impacts on the health of individuals, communities and nations. A healthy community is comprised of neighbourhoods that value, celebrate and enable outdoor free play. Outdoor Play is Everybody’s Business!


This document is part of series of evidence-based position statements directly focused on childhood and outdoor free play. They intend to demonstrate the importance, benefits, issues as well as 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 positive and negative impacts associated with different approaches to infrastructure and planning in relation to outdoor free play. Central to this document are key considerations and recommendations that enable real and meaningful changes that both safeguard childhood and support child development.

BENEFITS - Outdoor free play is essential for healthy children, communities, societies and nations

  • Outdoor free play helps children develop connections with their community and environment and a sense of place (e.g. Pacilli et al, 2013; Keniger et al, 2013).
  • Outdoor and natural spaces encourage free play, provide changing stimulus and encourage a greater level of physical activity in comparison to indoor environments (Janssen & Rosu, 2015).
  • 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).
  • Childhood habits related to physical activity inform behaviour in adulthood.
  • Sedentary behaviours in childhood impact on long term health trajectories with health, social and financial burdens for individuals, communities and nations (e.g. Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, USA; Department of Health, UK; Federal Ministry of Health, Germany; The Department of Health, Australia).
  • 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 (e.g. Beyer et al., 2014; Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Hughes, 2007).
  • 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).
  • Opportunity 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 infrastructure and planning issue in Australia

  • Parental fears, including those related to traffic and stranger danger, are key barriers to outdoor free play in communities (e.g Carver et al., 2008; Jago et al., 2009; Health Victoria, 2015).
  • Until the 1980’s nearly all suburban Australian homes had large backyards by international standards and house footprints covered 20 - 30% of 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, apartment and high-rise living, 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, watching or engaging with a screen (Brussoni et al., 2015; Bell et al., 2015; Mc Curdy et al. 2010).
  • 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 everyday (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.
  • Around 26% of children aged 5 – 14 have a body max 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 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).
  • Green spaces alone are not enough to encourage outdoor play, rather safe routes to access these spaces are key. Managing traffic, traffic calming and providing safe walking/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 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 are more likely to access these spaces independently than children who must travel further (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).
  • Children’s Independent Mobility (CIM) is increased by a critical mass of families or other children providing company and an expectation that children will play in public spaces (Whitzman & Mazrachi, 2009; Whitzman, 2010).
  • Children prefer natural landscape features in their play (Azlina and Zulkiflee, 2012) and remnant bushlands are important play spaces.
  • 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.
  • Children’s perceptions of appealing play environments are different to adult perceptions. Children prefer facilities that are challenging not traditional (Aziz and Siad, 2012). Overly engineered, landscaped, formal playgrounds and planned spaces can be boring to children.
  • 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 e.g. field and parklands for free running or ball games, while bush and trees provide opportunities for exploration, adventure and 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).
  • Having an element of danger or challenge is an important motivator for children, risk taking helps to prevent boredom and provides movement and confidence (Miller & Kuhaneck, 2008).
  • Children prefer to play in the company of friends, siblings or pets (Miller & Kuhaneck, 2008).
  • The introduction of ‘loose parts’ can provide variety, options and choice in children’s play (Hyndman and Telford, 2015).
  • 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).
  • The involvement of communities, children and families in planning decisions can enhance planning outcomes and create a sense of community ownership (Hyndman & Telford, 2015).

NEXT STEPS -  Aligning Outdoor Play and Infrastructure

Strengthening children through supportive and appropriate infrastructure and planning

Appropriate planning helps create cohesive and connected communities that support children’s outdoor free play and independent mobility and contributes to the physical and phycological health of neighbourhoods. Good design enables safe movement through and between areas and provides varied spaces to gather, walk and play.

The State Infrastructure Plan Strategy recognises the importance of infrastructure and planning that maintains and improves our way of life by supporting liveability, connecting communities and improving sustainability and resilience. It highlights the importance of seeking 'whole of government solutions' and the value of working across government departments to challenge problems. It also seeks to build safe, caring and connected communities. 

The Department of Transport and Main Roads, in partnership with local governments, also plays a role in creating welcoming, connected and active communities. For example, Easy Steps: a toolkit for planning, designing and promoting safe walking provides local governments with guidelines to encourage active travel and recommends identifying active travel route networks, walking audits, providing pleasant walking environments and identifying potential solutions to barriers to active travel. A commitment to getting children outdoors and active is also shown through initiatives such as Healthy Active School Travel (HAST). HAST, an initiative of the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads and the Queensland Department of Health, was implemented between 2012 and 2015 and resulted in a considerable increase in physical activity among children attending schools involved in the program.

Nature Play QLD would like to invite state and local government departments involved in infrastructure and planning to continue to strengthen their engagement and leadership in promoting and enabling outdoor free play.  Five key suggestions are:

  1. Working with Nature Play QLD to explore the creation of nature play principles that can be integrated into infrastructure and planning projects,
  2. Working with Nature Play QLD to develop a suite of resources and fact sheets to be disseminated to government staff and contractors,
  3. Developing and strengthening traffic awareness campaigns to increase driver awareness of children playing in communities,
  4. Working with Nature Play QLD to discuss integrating a child-centred approach into relevant infrastructure and planning policies,
  5. Actively participating in Nature Play QLD’s - CHILDHOOD SUMMIT in 2019.


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

Ph: 07 3367 1989


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