Playing outside in the city: the children's perspective

Blog by urban geographers Irina van Aalst and Kirsten Visser

Utrecht is a young city, with a large number of students and young families. One in five inhabitants is younger than 18 and therefore grows up in the city. But is Utrecht still a good place for children to play and grow up in? Urban geographers Irina van Aalst and Kirsten Visser tell us about their research, in which the children themselves play an active part.

As part of the research theme Dynamics of Youth, we carry out research into urban children, for whom playing outside is no longer routine. Studies conducted by Jantje Beton (2018) show that 30% rarely or never play outside, an increase on the figure of 20% found five years ago. This worries us, because playing outside is an essential part of growing up actively and healthily in the city. But what do the children themselves think? And what are their solutions for making outside play fun again?


Playing hide-and-seek online

Research has shown that there is less and less space for urban children to play outside. An increase in inhabitants and visitors has given rise to a construction boom at the expense of parks and playgrounds. Safety also plays a part: concerned parents are keeping their children indoors for fear of something happening to them. Children themselves indicate that they are afraid of bullies and 'older' children in the street. They assess most local playgrounds as boring and more suited to smaller children. Furthermore, the busy calendars of both parents and children leave little time for spontaneous play. Outside activities are limited to sports clubs, out-of-school care facilities and family outings at the weekend. The nature of 'play' itself has also changed. Outside play has partly been supplanted by digital screens and computer games, and playing together now means playing online. Only recently, a 10-year-old boy was heard to say in the TV programme De Wereld Draait Door that 'it's much better to play hide-and-seek online, as you don't have to get up and don't have to go outside'. This made us think.


Tough questions

Together with Consulting Kids, we visited three primary schools in Wittevrouwen and Voordorp and nominated children from groups 7 and 8 (10 to 12-year-olds) to become 'junior advisers' for the day. We asked them what needed to change in order for children to go and play outside again. For us as university researchers, this was a unique chance to engage children in a different way: this time, the children were the experts. Our approach of outlining the problem on the basis of a 'children's story' was something the children really identified with. At the same time, the children didn't shy away from asking some tough questions, such as: how much time should you spend playing outside each day? Are children themselves to blame for the decline in outside play? Why are computer games so addictive?



Een klas vol junior-adviseurs aan het werk

From playground mentors to roof playgrounds

There is a high demand for good-quality, fun playgrounds. Municipalities are usually happy to provide facilities for outside play, but these do no always meet the requirements of the users – in this case, the children themselves. The 'junior advisers' came up with a range of ideas to get children to play outside more. Many of their proposals focused on making outside play more fun and exciting with the aid of such things as interactive paving stones or life-size games of Minecraft and Dominoes. Several children also suggested connecting the online and offline worlds through innovative apps. Enhancing safety emerged as one of the key recommendations. Among the mooted ideas was the appointment of a playground mentor – a young person from the neighbourhood, for example – who would be responsible for ensuring a safe environment, and the use of pedestrianised streets and roof playgrounds to promote outside play.


A place to daydream

Furthermore, the 'junior advisers' felt that parents had to play a greater part by sending their children outside to play or even joining them. However, parents are often busy. One possible solution would be to organise spaces for parents to work or relax while keeping an eye on their children. Finally, children indicated that there should also be plenty of space for lazing around, daydreaming and 'unstructured' play. This would ideally take place in a natural environment without too much adult intervention and interference.

Children indicated that there should also be plenty of space for lazing around, daydreaming and 'unstructured' play.

Children have their say

What are the benefits of this type of research? More often than not, research is about children, while the children themselves are rarely involved in research activities or consultations. For this project, we engaged children by letting them have their say about a socially relevant challenge and possible solutions. The children rewarded us with creative ideas and questions that can serve as an inspiration to stakeholders such as Utrecht University, University Medical Center Utrecht, the Wilhelmina Children's Hospital, the municipality of Utrecht and Jantje Beton.



If you want to tackle social problems, you can best start with children. The Utrecht research theme Dynamics of Youth invests in a resilient youth. Scientists from all disciplines work together to better understand children's development. How do we help children and young people grow and prosper in our rapidly changing society?