Students’ Den: “All work and no play … ?” A project investigating the public health discourse on children’s play.


Closing our first series of students’ articles,  Stephanie Alexander offers an interesting introduction to a somewhat different Public Health topic: children’s play. We would very much like to have your views on this thought-provoking post! Many thanks to Stephanie for her contribution!


In our contemporary western society a high value is attributed to playing– we all play (or at least we used to) and perhaps we feel we should play more often. Play is particularly valued in childhood, because it is considered so crucial for the development of intellectual, social, physical and psychological abilities. Beyond this, playing is also meant to be fun! Although there is no official definition of play, most definitions suggest that playing is pleasurable, is intrinsically motivated, imaginative and creative, is pursued for its own sake (i.e., no promise of external rewards), and is most often not a part of ordinary, day-to-day life. This form of playing, which has been labelled “free-play” is considered so critical for childhood that it has been declared a ‘right of every child’ by the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Despite the importance of playing for childhood, there is a growing awareness that children’s play has changed radically, particularly in North America. The general sense is that “free-play” for children is on the decline. This decline has been attributed to changing perceptions regarding child safety and risks associated with play, particularly outdoor play, and the resulting need for increased supervision and management of children’s play. All of this has placed constraints on how and where children play. In addition, social and cultural trends over the past decades in North America have also created competitive educational environments for children in which play is becoming predominantly education-oriented and increasingly structured. A counter-trend has thus emerged among some childhood educators, psychologists and “play advocates”, all of whom are aiming to resurrect free-play in childhood.

The discussions about resurrecting free-play for children have also begun to resonate with public health concerns around child health. With increasing public health alarms over childhood obesity and sedentariness active free-play has begun to be considered for its health potential, specifically as a means of countering childhood obesity. For example, outdoor play structures and parks have begun to be reconsidered for the opportunities they provide to promote physical activity in children. As the title of a recent press release on the Alliance for Childhood website illustrates, there is a growing belief that: “Free-play is the missing link in anti-obesity campaign”.

Is public health “all work, no play”?

While there is no intention to critique public health efforts to promote children’s health more generally, this particular public health discourse around children’s free-play is not without some potential unintended consequences. By advancing free-play as an instrument of health in this way, play in public health becomes a means to achieve a public health end. That is, playing is encouraged for the sake of health rather than simply for the sake of playing. This transformation of play to ‘play for health’ in turn threatens to strip free-play of some of its fundamental elements, particularly its freedom, its spontaneity, and importantly its pleasurable characteristics. From a child’s perspective, this might be the difference between wanting to play ‘just because it’s fun’ and having to play ‘because it’s healthy’. What is problematic in all of this is that these potentially ‘lost’ elements are in fact those that have been considered so critical to children’s overall well-being and happiness. As play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith has suggested, the loss of pleasure in play for children is particularly critical, since play for children, quite simply, “makes them happier”.

These reflections have recently stimulated the development of a doctoral project being conducted at the Université de Montréal, which aims to examine this emerging public health discourse in public health.
Specifically, it aims to investigate how children’s free-play is being discussed and promoted in a field that is, for the most part, health-outcome oriented. A discourse analysis of public health texts around children’s play will be conducted to examine the assumptions underlying the public health representation of children’s play, to highlight elements that are potentially being relegated or omitted in the current discourse (e.g., pleasure?) and to investigate how this discourse might be shaping the way play is thought about and engaged in by children. As a complement to this discourse analysis, child-guided photography sessions and interviews will be conducted to understand what children have to say about their own play. The goal here is to understand what playing means to a diverse group of children – where and with whom they play, what they like about different forms of play and why they like playing in these ways. These two components together will help illustrate the way children’s own perspectives on playing are situated within the public health discourse on play and may help identify how public health discourse is beginning to shape children’s play behaviours.

The hope is that in the short term this project will encourage a critical stance within public health toward this emerging discourse on play with a call to further reflection on the assumptions underlying public health knowledge around children’s play (e.g., questioning of messages that present free-play as a practice to counter a disease). In the long term, the hope is that there will be increasing reflection on the role that public health has in advancing existing societal/cultural trends that value productivity, progress and utilitarianism over elements such as pleasure, creativity or diversity (i.e., what kind of citizens is public health construcing by promoting play to children in this way).

This doctoral project is being conducted by Stephanie Alexander and supervised by Dr. Katherine Frohlich (Université de Montréal) and Dr. Caroline Fusco (University of Toronto). For more information about the project, references or comments and ideas, contact Stephanie Alexander: or

View the latest posts on the International Journal of Public Health homepage


By commenting, you’re agreeing to follow our community guidelines.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


I’m just an undergraduate and it’s a personal opinion more than it is any scientifically relevant dissertation – so treat it accordingly. 😉

I am a bit scared and dumbfounded. As I always am when I see “perfectly normal things” placed in such a context. I know that it is the unwritten (?) golden rule of today’s science, that one should be objective and be able to examine a subject with a kind of stoic interest, but I personally think it is just nigh impossible. (Actually my professor of psychology told us that “objectivity” is an illusion and maybe it isn’t that bad after all, if you are -at least in some way- involved in what you are doing.)
But what am I talking about? I’m talking about the tendency that seems to get more and more present as I experience more and more of the world. The trend, that we tend to be “control freaks”.
I hear parents being excessively concerned about their children (as it is mentioned in this article too) for example. And then there are patients and/or doctors who want to be able to be in full charge of their own (their patient’s) health/well-being.
Human of today seems to be a bit… obsessed with control. Management. That is what we hear about a lot. Manage your time, your money, your job, your information, your e-mails, your car, your cell-phone, your facebook account etc. etc. And in health: manage your BMI, your blood pressure, your serum-cholesterol, your energy intake, your whatnot.

Don’t get me wrong. I like order, I like structure and I like it when things are “managed” and run smooth. I am not at all a “Laissez-faire, laissez-passer” person. But some things just should run “on their own”. In the article it is very validly pointed out, that by such control over free-play, it will only just lose its most important aspect.

So when I read this (thought-inspiring) article and see children’s play being dissected like this… I mean “The goal here is to understand what playing means to a diverse group of children – where and with whom they play, what they like about different forms of play and why they like playing in these ways. These two components together will help illustrate the way children’s own perspectives on playing are situated within the public health discourse on play and may help identify how public health discourse is beginning to shape children’s play behaviours.” …really? Please don’t stone me, I’m not criticising the article, but simply disagreeing with the idea behind it. It comes to my mind “When will we start teaching people about the importance of breathing?” And anyway, what is there to research? Have we not all been children? Should not we be able to relate to them, if not fully, but enough to be able to take care of them?
That was a rhetoric question. I know that sadly, many parents just don’t know what to do with their kids. Either they are over-protective or barely paying any attention to them (or much rather: to their needs).

In my naive opinion, it should be enough to educate parents. Just tell them “Your kids need to play outside and with other kids. Let them have fun, but look after them.” Is that not the essence of this matter? We don’t need diagrams of how hide-and-seek lowers the risk of coronary disease or what effects does walking the dog have on later depression. Let me say this: it doesn’t really matter. People are fed up (literally) with facts and figures.

So what do you say? Am I too naive/ignorant?


hi there,
i am a worker in public health and i read your comment very carefully and i agree with you.

most scientist these days unfortunatelly are missing the common sense totally.

hello academics, wake up!

Stephanie Alexander

Thank you to Steve and Glew for your comments on my post! It’s great that this produces discussion and even more so if some debate emerges.

To respond to Glew more specifically:
First, regarding your comment about control and ‘child management’- I couldn’t agree more. As I mention in my entry, it is precisely this control of children’s play that is emerging in the public health discourse (out of fear of risks, in order to encourage physical activity etc) and which might be resulting in the omission of elements such as pleasure and creativity, which are so important for children’s playing.

Second, while I think I see your reason for making the analogy between the importance of playing and “teaching people about the importance of breathing”, I have to disagree with your choice of analogy. Playing is not like breathing, for the very simple reason that while playing is important, we would not die without it. Further, there is no universal consensus on what ‘playing’ is, and therefore the way it is conceived of, defined and enacted can change over time. Were playing a ‘given’ equivalent to breathing, then it would not be a topic of increasing debate or an activity increasingly encouraged in specific and new ways. It is not a question here of whether it ‘ought to be’ like breathing – I make no statement on this point. Just that it is currently not a given in the same way breathing is. It is for this reason that I am interested in the way that playing is currently being constructed in the public health discourse.

Last, while it is true that we have all been children and can related to this shared experience of childhood what cannot be taken for granted are the social, cultural and historical contexts in which we grow up as children and in which children play. Further, parents, educators, public health researchers and children themselves are shaped by, and in turn shape, the discourse around playing. As such, while most people might agree on the ‘given’ importance of play, what “playing” was conceived of 50 years ago and what play is conceived of today in public health may be quite different. What I am interested in is to examine these social, cultural and political assumptions that underlie the current discussions of play in public health – and how these may shape (and limit?) the possibilities existing for children’s play today.

I hope this responds to some of your queries! Thank you again for your thoughts and comments, they are always welcome. For any specific questions you can always contact me directly:


Thank you for your response Stephanie!

Maybe my choice of analogy -with breathing- was not the best choice, maybe it is because of language difficulties… I think you somewhat misunderstood it so I would like to clarify this.
I agree with you that playing is far more complex, diverse and far less understood compared to playing. In my analogy I used breathing as an exaggeration. I think we can agree that breathing is an obvious need for life. It is plainly simple and probably no one would ever question its importance. As you already wrote, playing isn’t that simple or obvious or self-explanatory. With my analogy I was referring more to the trend then this exact topic. The trend that -and this is my personal opinion- we overcomplicate things and “make an elephant from a flea” [Hungarian figure of speech].
On the other hand I admit I thought that playing is a somewhat simple thing. Now I see I underestimated the complexity of the matter. Now I can better understand “what is there to research”. However I still don’t think it is very much needed. I admit that I personally have the overall conviction that there are things we should not “mess with”. I imagine it sounds like I am some ignorant peasant from the middle ages, but knowledge doesn’t equal wisdom. There is a certain, undeniable connection, but maybe, just maybe we are better off not knowing some things. I say thins because I think science has lost humility. Many scientists are not humble any more. Often they talk about theories as facts or about facts as if they were exclusive. “What I don’t/can’t see is not there.” Now I think humility would be important to be able to recognise potential dangers. Most of the time I have the impression that scientists (sorry for the generalization, don’t take it personally) think they are in full control and that nothing can go wrong. Now there are so many silly “zombie apocalypse” films, I’m sure you’ve seen some too. I’m not afraid of zombies or killer robots; but why are we SO certain that if we dig deep enough, we will be pleased with what we find?

Maybe I am just a bit paranoid, or maybe a bit cowardly? Probably there is a lot to gain from such studies. I am just concerned what if there are things to lose? But this is philosophy and ethics and sadly, there is scarcely any direct answer in philosophy and ethics. (Now I realize my concerns might be similar to those what some people had had about dissecting the human body. I am concerned about dissecting the human mind/psyche. Dissecting the body earned us a lot. But it still feels wrong.)