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“Nobody is there yet everyone is there.” Children’s perspectives on what makes their neighbourhood enticing for playing outside unsupervised

“Nobody is there yet everyone is there.” Children’s perspectives on what makes their neighbourhood enticing for playing outside unsupervised

Thank you to Yingyi Lin, PhD student in the Population, Health and Place program at the University of Southern California, and Mariana Brussoni, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, for providing this post.

Walking to school and playing in the streets without adult supervision were previously commonplace, but are no longer the norm in many countries. Children’s retreat from the street in recent generations has raised concern from scholars, policy makers, and media because of the many benefits that come from playing outside unsupervised – for children and for cities.

Children playing outside are more physically active and less sedentary, particularly when unsupervised. Unsupervised outdoor activities help children develop motor skills, social behaviours, risk management skills, a sense of self-control and independence. Not surprisingly, children prefer playing outside, particularly when unfettered by adults.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrines the child’s right to be heard and to play. Vibrant and sustainable cities are characterized by inclusive, play-friendly neighbourhoods, yet children are often deliberately designed out in favour of cars and adult priorities. The well-being of the youngest citizens is the optimal indicator of the healthiness of a city’s environment, governance, and sustainable planning policies.

The State of Play study aims to develop a conceptual framework to measure how friendly a given outdoor environment is for unsupervised outdoor activities (i.e. neighbourhood ‘playability’) for children aged 10-13, a time of transition in children’s lives from parental influence and control to increasing independence, engagement with peers, and independent mobility.

Through interviews during walking tours of ‘meaningful’ places in their neighbourhood, 105 children living in three neighbourhoods of Metro Vancouver shared their perspectives of the factors that facilitate and/or impede their unsupervised outdoor activities in the neighbourhood.

Feeling safe outside was a central concern for the children, as well as whether there were things to do once they went outside. A sense of safety came from having people around them that they felt they could rely on, and feeling confident navigating the streets around their neighbourhood –in terms of strangers or bullies and busy traffic. Children valued having friends to play with and a diversity of things to do close by, including being able to access nature and opportunities to engage in risky play.

These factors interacted and ultimately influenced whether children chose to go out and play independently. We outlined a conceptual model of  children’s decision process for unsupervised outdoor activities. Children’s unsupervised outdoor play seemed to be contingent on the answers to these questions: Am I allowed to go out? Do I feel safe outside? Is there anyone to hang out with? Are there things to do?

Several implications for policy makers and municipal planners emerged from the findings. Safety fears are prominent for both parents and children where fostering a sense of neighbourliness can help mitigate those fears. Interventions such as play streets, which close streets to traffic and encourage play, may improve neighbourliness and children’s access to unsupervised outdoor activities. Furthermore, the importance of including children’s voices in city making is clear and the benefits extend beyond children to promoting vibrant cities for all citizens.

The full article can be accessed in the Journal of Environmental Psychology here.


Yingyi Lin, MSc, is a second year PhD student in the Population, Health and Place program at  the University of Southern California. She studies the social determinants of child health, and seeks to understand what is missing in research and why existing attempts do not seem to slow or reverse the continuing worsening (if anything) epidemic of childhood obesity. Her research is deeply interdisciplinary, consists primarily of quantitative analyses, and lies at the intersection of sociology (demography), epidemiology, and spatial science.

Mariana Brussoni, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Brussoni is also a board member of the Child & Nature Alliance of Canada. Her research investigates the importance of outdoor risky play for children’s healthy development and how built outdoor environment impacts children’s play. Further details can be seen at