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Disability Equality Specialist Support Agency

What is play and why is it important?

Play is vital to the development and well being of all children. According to the National Playing Fields Association (UK), “play is freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated behaviour that actively engages the child”. The meaning of this definition is important for all children, but especially for disabled children, as it distinguishes play from therapy, games, sports, arts and other activities initiated and directed by adults.


More than that, play:

  • is the way that all children learn about themselves and the world in which they live
  • is a positive end in itself
  • influences children’s social, physical, intellectual, creative and emotional capacity.


Outdoor play, in particular, helps to children to develop realistic awareness of risk and danger while also keeping them active and healthy.


Variety is one of the most important aspects of children’s play. A good play environment offers a richness of opportunity that allows each child to exercise choice and to explore and develop safely at their own pace. It also offers them the chance to play alone or with others.


According to the UK Children’s Play Council a good play facility will:

  • extend the choice and control that children have over their play, the freedom they enjoy and the satisfaction they gain from it
  • recognise the child’s need to test boundaries and respond positively to that need
  • manage the balance between the need to offer risk and the need to keep the child safe from harm
  • maximise the range of play opportunities
  • foster independence and self-esteem
  • foster children’s respect for others and offer opportunities for social interaction
  • foster children’s well-being, healthy growth and development, knowledge and understanding, creativity and capacity to learn.

(Best Play: What Play Provision should do for Children, Children’s Play Council (CPC), National Playing Fields Association (NPFA), Playlink, 2000)


Why is play particularly important for disabled children?

All the aspects of play listed above are especially important for disabled children because:

  • inaccessible environments may limit their choice of places to go and things to do
  • the nature of their impairments may limit their opportunities for stimulating, exciting or challenging activities
  • if they go to special schools or are in hospital a lot they may have very little chance to mix with local children
  • well-meaning adults may feel the need to protect them and not give them as much chance as other children get to take risks and test boundaries – or even to get dirty!


Can all children use the same play facilities?

The traditional way of thinking about disability (often called the medical model) holds that disabled children are a special group with complex needs, and that they need to play in special places and in particular ways.


The more accurate way of thinking, adopted by community-based projects and many other progressive groups and known as the social model, says simply that disabled children are children first and that they need the same opportunities for play, variety, socialising and challenge as all other children.


All children are individuals, and they all play in their own way. Children do not need to be able to access and use play spaces in exactly the same way, but they are all fundamentally entitled to go out to play and to meet each other if they want to (just as families with both disabled and non-disabled members have the right to do things together). Until recently the needs and requirements of disabled children were not fully considered in the planning and design of play spaces, and that made it harder for them to join in. It prevented disabled children and their parents from building the relationships and networks that bind communities together and promote social inclusion.


Whether every child can use every piece of equipment in a play space is less important then ensuring that every child has access to the social experience of play.


Community-based projects need to remember, too, that disabled children can experience barriers other than inaccessible play equipment. Attitudinal, institutional and social barriers can have a very detrimental impact on whether a disabled child uses their local playground or not.


So really it’s all about inclusive play:
“ Inclusion means everyone having the right to choose to take a full part in all local services – and in being equally welcomed and able to do so. Inclusive provision is open and accessible to all and takes positive action in removing disabling barriers so that disabled and non-disabled children can participate.”
(It doesn’t just happen: inclusive management for inclusive play, Philip Douche, KIDSactive, 2002)


Inclusive play is not about meeting “special needs”; it’s about meeting all children’s needs in the same place and in a variety of different ways. (Pick & Mix: a Selection of Inclusive Games and Activities, Di Murray, 2004)


These ideas are also contained in some important policies and laws. Some of the most relevant ones are:

  • Article 31 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1989) which asserts that play is a fundamental right of children
  • The Equal Status Acts, 2000-2004, which outlaw discrimination in the provision of services, including play spaces. The law requires service providers to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities
  • Objective J of the National Children’s Strategy (2000) says that “children with a disability will be entitled to the services they need to achieve their full potential”
  • Objective Four of the National Play Policy (2004) is “to maximise the range of public play opportunities available to children, particularly children who are marginalised or disadvantaged or who have a disability”.


Local authorities and other statutory providers also need to comply with the access requirements of the Disability Act, 2005. The Act, however, does not apply to community-based projects.