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

Active play, and outdoor play in particular, is important in helping children maintain healthy weight.

Evidence supports the role of play in overcoming inequalities.

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 (external link):

"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.

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, teahers 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.

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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

    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 play in 5-8s?

    How can I help address inequalities and support play in 5-8s?

    • When was this last updated? 7/3/2013
  • 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


  • 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