Play and inequalities from 3-5 years

Play is a crucial part of childhood and a right enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Evidence supports the role of play in overcoming inequalities.

Quick links:

What are health inequalities?

The WHO defines health inequalities as "differences in health status or in the distribution of health determinants between different population groups."

For a general discussion of health inequalities and the early years, please see Inequalities in the early years.

Policy context

A child's right to play is enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child:

"Every child has the right to relax, play and take part in a wide range of cultural and artistic activities."

Activity in this area is consistent with commitments and priorities detailed in the Early Years Framework and the National Parenting Strategy, Equally Well, Achieving our Potential, a range of NHS Scotland's Quality Indicators and is relevant to Scotland's national practice model for child-centred services - Getting it Right for Every Child (all external links).

What is play?

"Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated."

"The impluse to play is innate. Play is a biological and psychological necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well being of individuals and communities."

Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group, Cardiff 2005.

Evidence on the impact of play

Play is an essential part of children's physical, cognitive and social development.

NHS Health Scotland have developed a Briefing on PlayThis briefing paper aims to increase understanding and provides evidence about the benefits of play in children’s development.  It covers the following:

• What is play

• Why play is important

• Barriers to play

• The play environment

• Promoting play

Increased physical activity in preschool children is associated with improved physical health status. There is some evidence to suggest that as they grow up, active children and young people are also less likely to smoke, or to use alcohol, get drunk or take illegal drugs (The Power of Play: An evidence Base (external link)).

See also, information on the benefits of active play in the sections on physical activity and child healthy weight.

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How do inequalities impact on children's play?

Almost 1 in 6 children in Scotland have no access to safe places for outdoor play with children living in deprived areas being more affected than those in the least deprived areas (Findings of the Scottish Play Commission: Raising the Bar (external link)).

Meanwhile, an analysis of play areas in Glasgow in 2005 found that outdoor play areas in the most deprived neighbourhoods were of poorer quality than in the least deprived areas (Ellaway, A et at (2007) Nowhere to play?).

Disabled children from benefit dependent families, looked after children and children of asylum seekers are also more likely to experience restricted play opportunities (The Power of Play: An evidence base (external link)).

At 22 months, children from less advantaged backgrounds spent less time looking at books or being read to, reciting rhymes or singing, running or playing outdoors, painting or drawing, or recognising colours, shapes or numbers (Growing Up in Scotland: What do we know about play? (external link)).

Identifying those at risk

Because those at risk can be difficult to identify, it's important to link with other professionals who may know more about the family and their circumstances, e.g. carers, GPs, social workers, health visitors, nursery school and other childcare staff, and voluntary sector agencies.

A range of risk factors should be considered, including where the child lives in terms of socioeconomic status and whether or not they live in a deprived area, whether or not they are a looked-after child, parental health and wellbeing, disability and ethnicity.

For a fuller discussion of inequalities, see Inequalities in the early years.

A Pathway of Care for Vulnerable Families (0-3) (external link) sets out key contact points and interactions for those working with vulnerable families.

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play@home is a book-based play and physical activity programme for children from birth to the age of five years. The books are given to parents to encourage them to use the activities with their children, to guide and inform them about child development. The activities include bathing and water play, loving touch and massage techniques, movement, communication, imagination and creativity.

play@home is a fun and enjoyable programme of activities that are related to age and stage of development, using simple ideas and easily found resources. Each activity clearly lists the precautions to take to support safe participation. It also lists some of the many benefits of the activities, including the development of body awareness, moving, communicating, socialising and building relationships.

The greatest benefit is the interaction between parent or carer and child.

play@home books

play@home is provided to every family in Scotland when their baby is born. The programme is delivered in three stages:

  • the Baby book
  • the Toddler book
  • the Pre-school book

Pre-school book

Front cover of the play@home Pre-school bookThe play@home Pre-school book (three to five years) is issued to children when they enrol for their ante pre-school education. Those children who have received Baby and Toddler books in areas that have been using play@home for at least three years will be eligible for the Pre-school book.

More information on each of the three play@home books is available in the play@home information leaflet (external link).

How to order play@home books

Additional copies of the play@home books are available from local libraries across Scotland. Copies are also available for professionals to access locally, but books should ideally be shared with parents rather than professionals holding their own personal copy.

For more information about ordering the play@home books please email

play@home trainer sessions

A free, one day course has been developed to give you the skills to facilitate (or co-facilitate) a play@home session for colleagues.

The course is a practical way to support early years workers to develop a common understanding of the research and evidence that underpins health improvement, education and promotion of play and physical activity in the early years.

The training will help you to:

  • link theory to practice
  • understand where it fits with current policy
  • think about how you can develop partnership approaches with colleagues
  • consider health inequalities and how play@home can be adapted to meet the needs of individual families.

Participants from all sectors are welcome - e.g. health, local authority, education and family support, community or voluntary, and play.

There is no charge but attendees are expected to facilitate (or co-facilitate) at least two play@home training sessions for their colleagues. This would ideally be to a multi-sectoral audience but could also be to colleagues at team meetings or as part of an awareness raising programme.

For more information and details on how to book please contact:

Joyce Waugh
play@home training coordinator
0131 536 5570

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Articles in this topic

  • Article

    Active Play Research - Inspiring Scotland

    Inspiring Scotland is working in partnership with the University of Strathclyde to measure the impact of investment in Go2Play and the interim evaluation results are now available.

    • When was this last updated? 1/29/2016
  • Article

    An opportunity for the Maternal and Early Years Network to support PlayTalkRead.

    An opportunity for the Maternal and Early Years Network to support PlayTalkRead.

    • When was this last updated? 11/10/2015
  • Article

    Evaluation of play@home

    Information about how the play@home programme is evaluated.

    • When was this last updated? 7/25/2012
  • Article

    Financial inclusion referral pathway toolkit

    A toolkit providing support for developing or improving partnerships between early years services & financial inclusion organisations. It explains the core principles that should underpin these partnerships & uses case studies to illustrate referral pathways and examples of best practice.

    • When was this last updated? 9/8/2016
  • Article

    How can I help address inequalities and support children's play for 3-5s?

    How can I help address inequalities and support children's play for 3-5s?

    • When was this last updated? 6/28/2013
  • Article

    Origins of play@home

    How play@home was developed and how it will be evaluated.

    • When was this last updated? 7/25/2012
  • Article


    Outlines the importance of play in a child's development.

    • When was this last updated? 4/17/2012
  • Article

    Play and health

    play@home programme policy context

    • When was this last updated? 1/13/2014
  • Article

    play@home Pre-school book roll-out

    Schedule for the roll-out of the play@home Pre-school book.

    • When was this last updated? 7/25/2012
  • Article

    Spotlight on Play

    Spotlight on Play Blog from Julia Abel and Rachel Cowper at Inspiring Scotland

    • When was this last updated? 10/14/2015
  • Article

    The Play@Home programme national roll out

    Play@Home provides parents and carers with ideas for activities and games to share with young children. The programme can help to promote physical and mental wellbeing, and can help to strengthen the bonds between children and carers.

    • When was this last updated? 5/7/2013


  • External Resource

    Play Strategy for Scotland: Our Vision

    Published in October 2013 this document sets out the steps that need to be taken to achieve the Play Strategy Vision. Focussing on four domains: Home, Nursery and School, Community and Positive Support for Play, this strategy seeks to enable and support children’s play.

    • When was this published? 12/13/2013
  • External Resource

    Scottish Play Council

    The Scottish Play Council hopes to help build the capacity and voice of the Play Sector in Scotland and is aimed at leaders across the children and young people’s sector who value, support and promote play.

    • When was this published? 9/30/2014

Information for the public

  • External Resource

    play@home activity sheets

    The play@home activity sheets were developed by the Care and Learning Alliance as additional play ideas for parents, carers and children. They include instructions, variations, benefits and precautions and they continue to encourage everyone to have fun using things found easily around the home.

    • When was this published? 4/10/2013