‘The importance of play in children’s lives’

  Sporting Compass: With Dr Pippa Grange and Paul Oliver

Dr Pippa GrangePaul Oliver

As a sports psychologist and founder of Bluestone Edge, I am fortunate to have many conversations with people about the substance and meaning of sport.
My colleague Paul Oliver also engages with people at all levels across the sporting sector to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest news, views and issues.

In this space each fortnight, we will share some of these stories, insights and possibilities in relation to people, culture, ethics and leadership in sport. I hope you enjoy the conversation and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

All the best, Pippa and Paul


‘The importance of play in children’s lives’

28 October 2013
Category:   SPORT/SOCIAL JUSTICE – for good and for glory

I listened to a podcast recently from one of Australia’s leading advocates for children’s play (Vice President of the International Play Association, Robyn Monro Miller) who was speaking about the release of a UN toolkit to help governments around the world implement play initiatives. She explained that it is essential for a child’s healthy physical and emotional development that they have time for unstructured spontaneous play.

I agree whole-heartedly. Children intuitively understand the importance of engaging in active play. While they mightn’t realise the cognitive, physical and emotional benefits of play, they do know that it makes them feel happy, helps them run around and let off some steam, and gives them a chance to socialise with their friends.

We all know the significant health benefits of play and physical exercise. With the 2011-12 ABS Australian Health Survey reporting that over a quarter of our children aged 5-17 are either overweight or obese – it’s clear that the importance of play cannot be underemphasized.

New brain research also continues to inform and remind us about the social and emotional benefits of play for children. Professor of Psychology at Boston College, Peter Gray, reported in Play Matters: Giving Kids the Childhood They Deserve, his observations that the loss of play for play’s sake coincided with a dramatic increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide rates among teens and young adults.

However, there are a range of barriers to children’s play in Australia: Firstly, the number of safe places where children can go to play is become more and more limited; as housing density increases, parks and play areas are being squeezed out at a fast rate. Secondly, parents are undervaluing the role of free play and are increasingly placing their children in over-structured time. As Ms Monro Miller explains, we’re “making sure every afternoon they’ve got something to do, some class to go to, rather than seeing that there needs to be time in every child’s life to play and to just seize opportunities to stop and roll down a hill or balance on a tree, climb a tree”.

Former England cricket captain Mike Brearley delivered a wonderful Don Bradman Oration last week and made the point that: “every small child, before self-doubt, and comparison with other children, gets a grip, takes pleasure in his or her bodily capacities and adroitness. Gradually the child achieves a measure of physical coordination and mastery. Walking, jumping, dancing, catching, kicking, climbing, splashing, using an implement as a bat or racquet – all these offer a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Sport grows out of the pleasure in such activities.

Participants in sport, young and old, are offered the freedom to play; a luxury we so rarely enjoy in real life beyond childhood. Through the informal interaction with one another that sports and play offers, there is the potential for us to come to know one another differently; to interact on a playing field that provides a lens other than those we are accustomed to (such as racial stereotypes, historical or class divisions and cultural constraints).

With stories swirling around about parents and coaches pushing young kids to be faster, stronger and better at earlier ages these days, and a seeming emphasis on ‘a winning at all costs’ attitude permeating all levels of sport, it just reaffirms my views on the critical importance of making the time and space for playtime, despite the busy lives we all live.

In this digital era where work comes home with us and makes the distinction between the office and the home more and more blurred, taking time out to play with a child takes us away from future work deadlines and allows us to be in the present; a place we hardly ever are.

We should also keep in mind that different forms of play are evolving all the time and recognise that games and technology are another way that children can play and develop. Children are spending a lot more time participating in screen-based activities these days, and while moderation is clearly the key, some interactive video and computer games are shown to boost children’s self-esteem, problem-solving skills and, in some cases, physical activity levels.

The last word on this topic belongs to George Bernard Shaw, who is often quoted: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” Say, no more.

Dr Pippa Grange


Australian Human Rights Commission podcast, ‘The right for children to play’

Mike Brearley, Don Bradman Oration

2011-12 ABS Australian Health Survey



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