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UCL-led report with the global Reach Alliance examines children’s play needs in temporary housing

12 February 2024

The Reach Alliance, a global network of top universities, published its latest UCL-led research report, calling for play to be a key priority when supporting the needs of children in temporary accommodation.

Child and adult playing

The new study, titled 'A Place to Play: Children’s Play Needs in England’s Temporary Housing', was published by The Reach AllianceThe Reach Alliance was founded in 2015 at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy in partnership with the Mastercard Centre for Inclusive Growth. It is a student-driven, faculty-mentored research and leadership initiative aimed at addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which UCL joined in 2021.

The new report examined how living in temporary accommodation hinders play in children under five years old and, consequently, adversely affects their psychological and physical development.

There are currently over 130,000 children living in temporary housing in England. And the country’s cost of living and housing crisis has had a significant impact on local and national capacity to provide suitable accommodation, both temporary (for households at risk of homelessness) and permanent.

The researchers interviewed 16 professional stakeholders in various areas connected to temporary accommodation – including health, academia, and housing. They also spoke to three families with lived experience.

They found that physical space is crucial for children’s physical development, supporting their gross motor skills and ability to be able to engage in play.

Additionally, play was shown to be important for stimulating social skills, personal agency, and healthy conflict – which could be important for mitigating some of the negative impacts of isolation associated with living in temporary accommodation.

However, living in temporary accommodation means that play isn’t always a priority or an option.

Temporary accommodation can hinder play in a number of ways, including a lack of physical space, mental health issues (such as depression or anxiety), and strict visitor policies that do not allow children to invite over their peers.

The team found that living in temporary accommodation affects the psychological well-being of both parents and children, leading to feelings of guilt, unhappiness, and a loss of agency – inhibiting the ability to play.

Meanwhile, children living in temporary accommodation may feel isolated from their peers, and have unconventional development trajectories.

Co-author, former MPA student, Lorenzo Dall’Omo (UCL Institute of Innovation & Public Purpose), said: “The discourse around the housing crisis has always centered around a lack of affordable housing for private tenants, but rarely on the struggle faced by families, let alone children.

“With crucial phases of their early development spent trapped in unsuitable accommodation, these children are growing up without space to crawl and walk, let alone play. However, this can have immediate and lasting consequences for both their physical and mental development.”

Consequently, researchers have made several policy recommendations to tackle the problem of play in temporary accommodation.

These include: implementing low-cost, positive interventions to support the immediate play needs of those currently in temporary accommodation (such as making existing spaces more suitable for play and supporting management referrals to community service providers with play specialties); encouraging play in temporary accommodation as an interdisciplinary focus area for collaboration across public, private, and third-sector authorities; and recognising children’s play needs as spanning the housing sector and the health, economic, and social spheres.

The team is also calling for human bonds and relationship building to be placed at the forefront of tackling the housing crisis and better supporting children’s play needs.

Mr Dall’Omo said: “From the data gathered, it is clear that there is yet immense work to be done to tackle the problem of play in temporary accommodation.

“While, of course, the long-term answer is systemic and implies a radical overhaul of the current housing system, there are many more immediate answers that could gradually pave the way – whilst simultaneously improving the play condition of children in temporary accommodation.”

Read the full article on UCL News