Sunday, 3 August 2014

A better place for kids to play

An OT Perspective on the Play Environment

Why play is important

For an occupational therapist, the two main occupations of children are play and learning (these aren’t mutually exclusive). Play is important for children to develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, social and moral capacities. 

Play is how children create and preserve friendships. It helps foster important life skills and a state of mind that is ready for learning, high-level reasoning, insightful problem solving, and all kinds of creative endeavours.

There are three key areas that occupational therapists look at when working with people: occupation, person, and environment. In this case, the occupation is play. The person is the individual child. And the environment? Well it’s a little more involved than you may think…

The play environment

There are no less than four components of any given play environment. Let’s take as an example an early childhood setting, such as a childcare centre.

1. The physical environment

The physical environment includes the playspace, the climate, any shade or shelter, the equipment supplied, and the buildings, structures (e.g. slides, flat or undulating surfaces) or boundaries around the play area.

2. The institutional environment

There are non-physical factors associated with the childcare centre, including the policies of the centre, times allocated to playing outside and/or inside, and rules about where to play (or not play). It also includes factors such as how groups of children may be divided (e.g. by age).

3. The social environment

This includes the staff’s attitude to play (e.g. whether they value play or not). These attitudes are reflected in choices made by staff, such as when and where to play (when these choices are not directed by policy) – for example, are playtime choices governed by what is ‘easiest’ for the staff to supervise, or what is ‘best’ for the children? Another aspect of the social environment includes the way staff speak to the children and one another, and the way the children have learned to speak to each other.

4. The cultural environment

The cultural environment includes attitudes and habits displayed by staff, which are often due in part to wider cultural values or to experiences from our own childhoods. For example, the types of play considered acceptable: is rough and tumble play okay or not? What play is appropriate for girls vs boys – should there be a difference? What does ‘keeping children safe’ mean – what is the attitude to risk?

Obviously there are both interplay and crossover between these four elements of the play environment.

How to create an effective play environment

The physical environment combines with these other aspects of the environment and throws open questions like:
  • Does the playspace encourage exploration of space and materials?
  • Are the challenges presented in the playspace appropriate for the children using it?
  • Does the playspace facilitate enjoyable and meaningful play for children?
  • Does the playspace allow the staff to easily supervise and support play?
The key to a genuinely effective play environment is to take all the environmental factors into consideration when designing the space. It is also important to bring all the stakeholders on board for the journey (staff, parents and the children themselves).

We therefore use our knowledge of the non-physical environmental factors to inform our design. So, we design for the specific user group in order to ensure a playspace responds to the nuanced needs of all potential players and other users. For example, in considering adult users of the playspace, we ensure that appropriate seating is part of the design, and that there is consideration of their line of sight for supervision of children. These design considerations will support increased outdoor play opportunities being made possible. 

It is also important to start conversations with adults in these settings about related concepts such as the value of play and the important role that appropriate risk plays in development. This is so that, over time, the non-physical environment can fully support and reflect the play-enhanced physical environment, with the result being children who can experience better outcomes in their physical and emotional wellbeing.

Sounds simple? It is both a simple and a highly complex process to create a playspace where children have opportunities to develop, extend their skills and play experiences, and most importantly, to have fun!

Nature Play Solutions consists of a multi-disciplinary team working together to create wonderful playspaces for children. Our occupational therapist is Emma Lawrence, B.Sc. (Occupational Therapy).

When discussing these environmental domains, Emma has been referring to a framework known as the Canadian Model for Occupational Performance and Engagement. You can find more about this framework in the book ‘Enabling Occupation II’, edited by Townsend & Polatajko (2007).


  1. Thank you. May I print this for my coworkers?

  2. Melya, we'd be delighted if you would do so. Thanks for sharing it around. - NPS