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Playing fair: How does race affect children’s access to outdoor play?

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing, Street Space on 18/05/2023

children cycling

A guest blog by Dulce Pedroso – an ‘expert friend’ to Playing Out who has recently completed a review of existing literature and practice related to race, ethnicity and children’s access to outdoor space and play. Little has been written about this important topic to date and we hope that Dulce’s project might inspire more research, thinking and action.

It is no surprise that children’s physical activity levels decreased even further during the pandemic. The most significant decline in Britain was among children of Black descent, and Black boys in particular are yet to bounce back. Black children are the most likely to experience housing deprivation, including lacking access to private gardens and public green spaces. Black and Asian children in London have higher traffic injury rates, regardless of their socioeconomic context, and Black people, most of them young, are more than seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white individuals.

All of the above data relates to children’s outdoor play in public spaces, so why is there so little research and evidence on this topic?

The impact of race on children’s outdoor play is not well understood

It feels like a different era when Black Lives Matter protests marched in towns and cities. While you may have to scroll your Instagram feed for a long time to find a black square, the issues the movement raised around systemic injustice and racism have not gone away. They get reproduced in new contexts – whether in the impacts of the pandemic or the cost of living crisis. Playing Out rightly wants to understand what the above means for its work promoting children’s freedom to play and belong in their neighbourhoods. As part of this self-reflection process, they commissioned this rapid review of literature on race, racism and outdoor play.

The review identified few studies on children’s outdoor play and mobility that focus on race and ethnicity. Those that do consider these themes, have found race-related differences but that these are poorly understood. The hugely diverse contexts could be one reason for this knowledge gap: there is no universal Black child experience. However, focusing on race does not mean generalising statements about diverse experiences but gaining a better understanding of those that are most relevant to Playing Out’s work and aims, including growing the resident-led play street movement.

Social norms at play in children’s opportunities to spend time outside

Inequalities in children’s physical activity levels have received a fair amount of academic and policy attention, and evidence from Western Europe and North America consistently finds Black (and immigrant) children to be less active. In the absence of direct evidence, the physical activity data could serve as a proxy for assessing children’s outdoor play.

We can also unpack the evidence around outdoor play and play interventions, even if this doesn’t directly address race. Children’s opportunities for outdoor recreation are shaped by the quality of housing and the home environment, and children from Black backgrounds are more likely to live in deprived neighbourhoods. Almost 40% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds live in the most greenspace-deprived areas, compared to 14% of white people.

But not all barriers to play are made of concrete. A lot of research is based on surveying parents and caregivers. The findings point to – perhaps an obvious – link between a mother’s perception of outdoor play and how much time a child spends outdoors. More interestingly, the studies reveal an element of moral judgment in societies such as Britain where independent outdoor play is becoming and less common – ‘good’ parents keep their children indoors. For parents from racialised backgrounds, the social costs of straying from model citizenry and the idea of a ‘good’ immigrant may be higher than the perceived benefits from outdoor play. Furthermore, Black children and young people are more likely to be both victims of crime and accused of a crime, which means there may be more at stake than a missed invitation to a play date. The policing of teens may also have consequences for younger children from minority ethnic backgrounds given their adultification by society. Finally, for parents from minority ethnic groups, outdoor play may also represent a lack of aspiration as the time spent climbing trees is time not spent climbing the ladder to success through prioritising homework.

Aside access, how about the quality of the time children and families spend outdoors? Social norms play a role in how public and outdoor spaces are designed. These are rarely child-focused to begin with – but discrimination based on culture and race may also interact with age-related barriers. A study on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London found significant differences between local people’s spatial practices and preferences. People from Asian and African ethnic backgrounds were less likely to be attracted to the ‘wildness’ of green space than white participants, and the symbolism used in the design did not resonate with people from all backgrounds. Much green outdoor space in cities is designed for individual recreation and exercise. Playing Out’s report of their Bristol estates project also found that disapproval from neighbours and unwritten (and written!) rules about acceptable use of space discouraged children’s play. By indirectly or directly banning large family gatherings, playing music, having picnics, playing ball games, and running on the grass, are children from ethnic minority backgrounds robbed of an opportunity to play outside?

Play streets address inequalities and increase community cohesion

Evidence that relies on opinion surveys may overplay the importance of perceptions. Further, it overplays the importance of the perceptions of those who respond to the surveys. This survivor’s bias might limit our understanding of some of the reasons for the different levels of engagement with outdoor play. Further, the importance of informal outdoor play for children’s wellbeing is still not widely understood, which may explain why the evidence on sport participation and racism does not yet exist for the outdoor play context.

But while few studies on outdoor play mention race and ethnicity, a number discuss community cohesion. The lack of community cohesion is among the main reasons parents limit children’s independent outdoor play. Play streets, however, have strengthened relationships and increased social interactions and positive feelings about the neighbourhood. Specifically, play street participants have reported increased interactions and friendships across different ethnic groups. Since more culturally and ethnically diverse communities tend to have lower levels of social cohesion than communities of people who share similar backgrounds, the impact of play streets can extend beyond the immediate benefits. By increasing community cohesion, the play street model helps to create conditions that increase outdoor play in the long-term, among other positive outcomes. With focussed support in diverse and more disadvantaged communities, play streets have great potential to help address inequalities around play and benefit children from racialised and minoritised backgrounds.

With the opportunity also comes a responsibility. The outdoor education sector, for example, has grappled with the lack of staff diversity. Play streets are generally community-led, sometimes supported by local organisations or groups. There should be an aim to improve diversity in the play street movement, both amongst resident organisers and those supporting them – something Playing Out is already committed to.

However, I have found that the evidence on race, racism and outdoor play is patchy and often indirect. Perish the thought that a researcher would conclude with a recommendation for more research! But efforts to increase diversity in implementation of outdoor play interventions should go hand in hand with diversifying and expanding the existing research agenda.

Read Dulce’s full report

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