An innovative methodological approach to evaluate the impact of a free play space on children’s play.

For the attention of: Municipalities, free play advocates, child friendly spaces enthusiasts and public health

The problem: Free play is essential for children’s positive health and development and has a profound impact on children’s lifelong health. It provides individual and societal benefits.

Despite compelling evidence confirming the benefits of free play, recent studies have shown a substantial reduction of time children spend in free play over the last five decades, in both formal and informal educational settings.

Early learning and care environments become optimal free play environments when they offer a variety of rich, sensory play opportunities that promote children’s choice and agency; increase their exposure to risks and allow them to test personal boundaries in a safe environment; and provide opportunities for social interactions and solitary play.

Yet to our best knowledge, there is a little research focusing on free play promotion in preschool programs and indoor spaces offered by public recreation facilities.

What we did: This paper discusses lessons from a participatory mixed methods research partnership (multi-site case study) that evaluated the impact of a municipal indoor play-based preschool recreation program on free play.

We used a novel methodological approach to understand the differences between a program offered in an innovative and purposefully-designed free play-based space and those in two conventional preschool recreation spaces.

We explored the multifaceted nature of children’s play experiences and behaviours from the perspectives of parents, preschool instructors, and the children themselves.

What our study adds: Findings from this study can be used to enhance preschool environments;

  • helping them become deliberate child-friendly places,
  • providing policy-makers and stakeholders with evidence for future investments in children’s play.

We share lessons from each of the four parts of the project, which involved different data collection methods and multiple participants.

We reflect on the successes and challenges associated with the community-engaged approach and the possibilities the findings might hold for creating more child friendly communities and cities.

Implications for city policy and practice: Child-friendly communities are inclusive of children and youth and promote their well-being in society.

  • Every municipal decision and investment directly impacts children’s right to experience a healthy, playful childhood; impacts their health; and their inclusion as full participants in their society.
  • Free play has been given dedicated attention by international bodies interested in promoting children’s health.

This recognition necessitates a nuanced understanding of how to foster play in those spaces dedicated to, and inclusive of, children.

Lessons learned from studies of child-centered spaces, like this one on municipal free play preschools, can be used to enhance community environments, purposefully reorienting them as inclusive, child-friendly places.

Links to other resources and support: The Place Research Lab and team at School of Public Health University of Alberta.

Twitter: Place Lab (@PLACE_lab), Strathcona County, Alberta, Canada (@StrathcoCounty)

Full research article: Evaluating child-friendly spaces: insights from a participatory mixed methods study of a municipality’s free-play preschool and space

Authors: Candace I. J. Nykiforuk (@nykiforuk_c), Jane Hewes (@JaneHewes1), Ana Paula Belon, Doreen Paradis, Erin Gallagher, Rebecca Gokiert, Jeffrey Bisanz & Laura Nieuwendyk

Editor: Marcus Grant