IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Play in Urban Spaces for Health (PUSH)

This project aims to help communities to design and build more outdoor play into urban spaces to improve children's well-being and physical health.

Open space in Housing Estate. Credit: Amanda Seims.
This project will run from February 2023 to July 2024 and is funded through a National Institute for Health Research Programme Development Grant.

Many children are not playing or being physically active enough to meet government guidelines. This might mean their health and wellbeing is not as good as it should be. The pandemic has made this worse by increasing time spent indoors, particularly for children living in inner-city/urban deprived areas. Increasing children’s physical activity is not easy to do. Children need safe environments where it is easy for them to play and be active. The regulations and people who influence how neighbourhoods are built, and where children play, need to create these environments. 

Play in Urban Spaces for Health (PUSH) is about encouraging regular play and physical activity by designing-in play into built-up inner-city areas. This idea is based on Scandinavian Forest Schools, where children play freely and regularly in natural, green environments, which helps them to develop a habit of being physically active. 

The PUSH programme is about testing the idea of getting children aged 3-7 years familiar with a local urban space designed for play and physical activity, so they feel confident using it. Urban spaces are outdoor spaces that are among the buildings and allow communication, transit and social interaction, including play. Children would walk to the space once a week with their teachers during school time and be given the freedom to play as they wish and be physically active. The dedicated space would still be open to the wider community. 

The project is being delivered in two areas: 

  1. Bradford, West Yorkshire, by researchers from Born in Bradford (at Bradford Institue of Health Research)
  2. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets by researchers from University College London

We want to understand how Forest Schools work and how they help children. To do this, we will talk to schools and staff who deliver Forest Schools, where children learn and play in nature. Planners in Bradford and Tower Hamlets will help us to select four urban spaces suitable for the PUSH programme. These could be existing usable urban spaces, or spaces that are being regenerated to improve their quality and make them more usable by everyone.

To understand what needs to happen to support children’s play in these spaces we will explore and document the system which influences children’s play and physical activity in these urban spaces. The system works at various levels:

  • Strategic – the policies, strategies and plans, and views and actions of professional people who make decisions about how urban spaces are developed and used.
  • Neighbourhood – the views and actions of community organisations, groups, and local residents, who influence how the selected urban spaces are used and could support children to use those spaces.
  • Child and family – the views and behaviours and children and parents who might use the selected urban spaces.

We want to know what people think of the PUSH programme and the selected sites. We also want to find out what parts of the system might help the PUSH programme or make it harder to do. To do this, we will speak to people involved at all levels of this system:

  • Professional people (e.g. policy makers, planners and designers).
  • Teachers at schools near these urban spaces who would take children to the spaces for play and physical activity during the school day.
  • Local community organisations and residents living near the chosen spaces.
  • Parents and children who would use those spaces.

We will find out what makes a good place to play, and ask them the best way of measuring how the PUSH programme changes children’s play, physical activity, health and wellbeing. All of the information collected will help us to understand how the idea of Play in Urban Spaces for Health might work and how it might help children. It will also help us understand whether the idea of Play in Urban Spaces for Health is suitable to be developed and tested.

The findings will help us to work with schools and professional people and organisations in Bradford and Tower Hamlets to test the PUSH programme. We will complete some more research with children, parents and schools to find out how children are using the spaces and if they are helping children to play and be active and healthy.


Project leads