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Play is such a vital part of the childhood experience that it seems almost impossible to imagine one without the other. Outdoor exploration, playground adventures, and art are examples of unstructured play that teach problem-solving skills and improve self-esteem. Yet, this type of play is not available to children in all socioeconomic areas. Because of the perceived cost of time and resources that this type of play requires, children from low-income families may have less access to unstructured play than their more advantaged counterparts.

How Influential Is Play Time?

The research suggests that play is a huge factor in the physical, mental, and emotional growth of a child – especially those from low-income homes. In 2007, the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine published a study in which low-income children between the ages of 18-months and 2.5 years were given blocks to play with during class time. After 6 months, these children scored significantly higher on language tests than the control group which did not engage in the free play.


Unstructured play time can actually lead to better cognitive development in low-income children. Photo via Santa Cruz Public Libraries

Unfortunately, the likelihood of children from low-income families to have access to unstructured play time is diminishing rapidly. A 2012 study published by the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) found that children living below the poverty line are much less likely to have unstructured play time, which may be a huge factor in lack of cognitive development. Researchers found that there are three key reasons for this:

1. Limited Access to In-School Play

Because of the increased pressure of legislation like No Child Left Behind and the introduction of Common Core State Standards, low-income schools spend a majority of their time and energy on increasing the test scores of their students. This has led to a whittling down of unstructured play and exploration in the school setting. A report released by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) showed that, although these types of programs affected the recess at 19% of districts around the US, there was a more significant impact on low-performing schools. Over 22% dropped recess time by at least a full hour as compared to 47 minutes in schools reaching performance goals.

2. Lack of Perceived Safe Play Areas

Another element that is affecting low-income childrens’ access to play is the lack of safe facilities. Poorly maintained parks give the impression of being unsafe, even if they’re not. A report published in 1994 in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration highlighted these challenges relating to the urban playgrounds in Cleveland, OH. Not only did the surveyed low-income subjects state that they felt the park areas were unsafe because of illegal activities and poorly managed equipment, but they suggested that traveling to these parks was a risk in itself. Despite research that shows that playground areas actually reduce illegal activity and vandalism, poor maintenance and outdated equipment puts additional supervisory pressure on parents to be constantly supervising activities.

Dangerous equipment is just one of the dangers low-income children face at local playgrounds. Photo via SubZero Consciousness

Dangerous equipment is just one of the dangers low-income children face at local playgrounds. Photo via SubZero Consciousness

3. Fewer Play Resources From Parents

Finally, low-income families are struggling financially, despite the fact that in 80% of these cases at least one parent has full or part-time work year round. According to the AAP, these parents are so focused on survival (i.e., obtaining food, shelter, and medicine), that they don’t have the emotional resources to play with their children. In addition, some low-income parents may feel that they don’t have the finances to afford the “right” toys, and so opt out of playing with children with “inferior” products. Finally, these families often live in areas where outdoor safety is a concern, so taking walks, riding bikes, or going to a local playground is not an option.

Real-World Solutions

The AAP suggests several solutions that need to be implemented in order to overcome the lack of play in low-income areas. They suggest:

Create innovative ways of increasing test scores in addition to providing access to recess, physical education, and the arts. Recent research in holistic teaching methods, including project-based learning, has suggested that incorporating inquiry, artistic expression, and physical activity is a great benefit for low-income schools. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Mathematical Behavior highlighted an elementary program that is teaching geometry and other mathematical concepts through the use of a full-body motion-sensor device.

Policy makers and community leaders must prioritize the need for safe play spaces. This means making community-wide investments in parks and playgrounds that allow students to feel safe in their ability to explore. A good example is the New York High Line Park. This defunct 10-block section of railway line was a dangerous attraction for illegal activity until it was repurposed in 2006 as an elevated park area. Now, it has spurred new economic growth in the area and become a good space for low-income children to explore safely. In addition, recent research from the Middle East Journal of Scientific Research showed that safe park design positively impacts the number of urban children who attend. Parents feel much safer bringing their children to well-lit, well-supervised parks and the number of illegal incidences dropped dramatically.

Parental education about the value of play. School districts, public groups, and policy makers need to invest the resources necessary to teach parents how to play with their children. They should emphasize that play is good for their children, regardless of how expensive or how many toys they own. In addition, parents need to have access to parenting support groups that will allow them time to fully recuperate their energy so that they are more emotionally and physically available to their children.

Learn About Legislation Impacting Parks. In order to keep parks safe for kids of all socioeconomic areas, it’s important to know the laws that are protecting both playground designers and communities. The National Recreation and Parks Association has a fantastic list of resources that will help keep you informed about what is going on nationally and locally with your parks department.