Playing for health? Revisiting health promotion to examine the emerging public health position on children's play

Health Promot Int. 2014 Mar;29(1):155-64. doi: 10.1093/heapro/das042. Epub 2012 Aug 20.


Concerns over dwindling play opportunities for children have recently become a preoccupation for health promotion in western industrialized countries. The emerging discussions of play seem to be shaped by the urgency to address the children's obesity epidemic and by societal concerns around risk. Accordingly, the promotion of play from within the field appears to have adopted the following principles: (i) particular forms of play are critical for increasing children's levels of physical activity; and (ii) play should be limited to activities that are not risky. In this article, we argue that these emerging principles may begin to re-shape children's play: play is predominantly instrumentalized as a means to promote children's physical health, which may result in a reduction of possibilities for children to play freely and a restriction of the kinds of play designated as appropriate for physical health. We argue that within this context some of the social and emotional elements of health and well-being that children gain through diverse forms of playing are neglected. This has implications for health promotion because it suggests a narrowing of the conception of health that was originally advocated for within the field. Additionally, this reveals a curious paradox; despite the urgency to promote physical activity through play, this position may limit the range of opportunities for children to freely engage in play, in effect reducing their activity levels. We propose an example that promotes play for children and better aligns with the conception of health as outlined in the Ottawa Charter.

Keywords: child health; critical perspectives; health promotion discourse; physical activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child Welfare
  • Exercise
  • Health Promotion*
  • Humans
  • Obesity / prevention & control
  • Play and Playthings*
  • Public Health*
  • Public Policy