Results from: “An exploration of parent perceptions of a take-home loose parts play kit intervention during the COVID-19 pandemic”
Naish C, Doyle-Baker PK, Ingstrup MS, McCormack GR
Benefits of unstructured play
“Play” describes children’s behaviours which are spontaneous, unstructured and child-led (1, 2). Play includes activities that are free, allow children to engage their imagination, and to do so without external rules or expectations (3, 4). Play is important for children’s health and wellbeing, and unstructured play specifically, can contribute to children’s physical literacy and physical activity (5, 6), as well as social and emotional development (7, 8). Despite these benefits, opportunities for unstructured play are declining, which can be attributed in part to the prioritisation of more structured activities, such as academics and sports (2), as well as parental safety concerns (9), and increased use of technology (10). While there are different ways to provide children with unstructured play opportunities, loose parts play supports unstructured play by including non-traditional play materials (e.g. milk crates, tools, kitchen utensils, climbing ropes) into the play environment to facilitate creativity and engagement (11, 12). A recent study explored how a take-home loose-parts play intervention impacted children’s play and parent’s perceptions of unstructured play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Loose parts play kits
During the COVID-19 pandemic a recreation facility in north central Calgary, Alberta, Vivo for Healthier Generations, designed take-home loose parts “Play Kits”, that families were able to borrow for 1-2 weeks at a time. These kits were created to help parents encourage free unstructured play at home at a time when other play opportunities were limited due to necessary public health measures enacted during the pandemic, such as physical distancing, the cancellation of sports and recreational programming, and the closure of recreational facilities. Vivo’s play kits were available from May 2021 to March 2022, with a total of 201 (103 large and 98 medium) play kits were signed out, with 37 households borrowing a play kit on more than one occasion.
Parent perceptions of unstructured play and play during COVID-19
Between August 2021 and January 2022, ten parents/caregivers who had borrowed the play kits for their families participated in semi-structured interviews and shared their perspectives on children’s unstructured play and children’s play during the pandemic. Through these interviews three overarching themes were identified: 1) A forced renaissance of play, 2) Bringing unstructured play home, and 3) Parenting is child’s play.
A forced renaissance of play:
This theme described how the pandemic impacted children’s play opportunities and how parents adjusted their perceptions and expectations of play to keep their children engaged. Parents described the challenges they faced due to restricted access to public facilities and limited social interactions, and the resources they utilized in meeting these challenges. They spoke to how the uncertainty, instability and unavoidable health advisories impacted their own and their children’s stress and anxiety, and reflected on how the necessary restrictions of the pandemic were isolating and alienating. In utilizing resources available to them, parents highlighted a renewed appreciation for “getting outside”, and an understanding that their children’s play was ultimately dependent on their own commitment to play as parents.
Bringing unstructured play home:
Parents shared their experiences of using the take-home play kits. They noted an appreciation for the novelty and accessibility of the play kits, as they allowed children to play independently and kept children engaged. Importantly, parents spoke to how bring unstructured play into their homes allowed them to reconceptualize play and helped them to better support their children’s play at home. In recognizing this role of “gatekeeper to play”, parents were able to better understand the value of unstructured play opportunities, and specifically unstructured play opportunities at home.
Parenting is child’s play:
This theme captures parental perceptions of play and highlights how parents reflected on what play is or what play can be. Parents shared similar definitions of play, often working definitions where they described different types of play, as well as different benefits of play. They spoke to children’s experiences with the play kits, but also broadly about children’s play, and emphasized that play is important for children both socially and developmentally.
While the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected children’s usual play and physical activity routines, parents were able to utilize available resources to encourage and support their children’s play during the pandemic, resources like the play kits. The play kits assisted parents with the challenges of encouraging play for their children at home, but also helped parents to redefine and reconceptualize what play can look like, and the importance of children having unstructured time. Acknowledging this, the play kits may be a helpful intervention for encouraging unstructured play at home, not only in the context of the pandemic, but in any environmental or societal setting where children’s unstructured play may be inhibited.
Suggested Citation: Naish C, Doyle-Baker PK, Ingstrup MS, McCormack GR. An exploration of parent perceptions of a take-home loose parts play kit intervention during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plos one. 2023 Oct 10;18(10):e0292720.
Posted October 24, 2023
Writing and Infographic by Calli Naish, BAS
Frost JL. A history of children’s play and play environments: toward a contemporary child- saving movement. 1st ed. New York: Routledge; 2010.
Gray P. The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. Am. J. Play. 2011; 3:443–463.
Huizinga J. Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press. 1955.
Rubin KH, Fein GG, Vandenberg B. Play. In Hetheringson EM, Mussen PH, editors. Handbook of child psychology, Vol. 4, New York: Wiley; 1983. 693-774.
Dankiw KA, Tsiros MD, Baldock KL, Kumar S. The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review. PloS One. 2020;15(2): e0229006–e0229006. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229006.
Wahl-Alexander Z, Morehead CA. An observational assessment of physical activity levels and social behaviour during residential summer camp unstructured time. Qual Res. 2020; 34(4): 387-392. doi: 10.1177/0890117119897191
Lester S, Russell W. Children’s right to play. An examination of the importance of play in the lives of children worldwide. Working paper No 57. The Hague, The Netherlands.
Yogman M, Garner A, Hutchinson J, Hirsh-Pasek K, Golinko RM, Baum, R et al. The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics. 2018;142(3): 1-16. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-2058
Veitch J, Bagley S, Ball K, Salmon, J. Where do children usually play? A qualitative study of parents’ perceptions of influences on children’s active free-play. Health Place. 2006; 12: 383–393. doi: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2006loebach.02.009
Marsh J, Plowman L, Yamada-Rice D, Bishop J, Scott F. Digital play: A new classification. Early Years. 2016;36(3): 242-53. doi: 10.1080/09575146.2016.1167675
Gibson JL, Cornell M, Gill T. A systematic review of research into the impact of loose parts play on children’s cognitive, social and emotional development. School Ment Health. 2017; 9(4): 295–309. doi:10.1007/s12310-017-9220-9
Nicholson S. How not to cheat children: The theory of loose parts. Landscape Archit. 1971; 62:30–34. Available from https://media.kaboom.org/docs/documents/pdf/ip/Imagination-Playground-Theory-of-Loose-Parts-Simon-Nicholson.pdf