30 Jan 2024

Why we need to prioritise play for children living in temporary accommodation

England’s persistent and now seemingly chronic housing crisis has recently accelerated and entered a new phase, compounded by the aftershock of the coronavirus pandemic and the crisis of inflation. Social safety nets are simply not enough to match the growing, urgent need for affordable and decent accommodation. The consequences of this crisis are colossal in nature, and risks hampering the development of an entire future generation of citizens. At present, there are over 130,000 children living in temporary housing in England.

We are a group of former UCL students, and as part of a project in collaboration with UCL and The Reach Alliance, and building off of previous CHAMPIONS research, we had the opportunity to delve deeper into the lives of children living in temporary accommodation (TA) with a focus on play, and how the nature of temporary accommodation constrains it, inevitably leading to adverse effects on child health and development. Throughout our research, we have heeded insights from both a set of professionals (16 across the fields of policymaking, education, housing) as well as three different families living in temporary accommodation with children.

The results have been stark and uncompromising: not only is play neglected when taking into account the needs of children in temporary accommodation, but this also causes adverse physical and psychological consequences that harm both the child and their families.

First and foremost, throughout the research it was clear that play wasn’t just a childish whim to be fulfilled, but a real necessity for a child’s healthy development. Under this frame, adequate physical space for a child to play proves to be crucial, as it enables the development of both gross motor skills and ability to engage in play. That said, adequate space in TA is scarce, with both experts and families expressing this as a main concern. In fact, this can delay a child’s ability to walk, ultimately negatively impacting their gross motor skills. As detailed by both experts and families alike, this often leads to problematic development trajectories, with children either having to grapple with skewed, alternative methods of play or being unable to perform basic functions such as walking along a garden path unattended or socially interacting with their peers. How can this physical, more immediate aspect of play then be tended to?

Through the research, we have found that it is possible to implement low-cost, positive interventions to support the immediate play needs of those currently in TA. These could take on a variety of different forms, such as preserving and prioritising children’s access to communal play space, supporting management referrals to community service providers with play support specialties, maintaining an expanding stay-and-play provision in local neighbourhoods, and creating secure, accessible storage space for strollers.

In addition to its importance in the physical sphere, play also stimulates social skills and personal agency, serving as a mechanism to develop healthy conflict, or debate, understood as the ability to handle conflict and disagreement whilst tolerating different opinions. This emphasises the importance of play in the formation of an individual who will, eventually, grow to become a full-fledged participant in society. One of our most consistent findings was temporary accommodation’s role in exacerbating feelings of isolation and insecurity by extracting the activity of play from the social sphere, leading children to have less interaction and, consequently, a less sustained habit of playing with their peers. Sometimes, even the policy and regulatory environment surrounding temporary accommodation can stigmatise and stifle play efforts, such as draconian visitor policies that arise from having to manage buildings that house both families and individuals, banning visitors and subsequently hindering children from inviting peers over for extra-curricular activities. A same mechanism occurs when neighbours may not like the noise of children playing (think of hostels and B&Bs), or the owners of an accommodation may not want to be liable in case a child gets hurt, so families are denied access to common outdoor space. Isolation and containment become a strategy for conflict mitigation.

Because of this, it is imperative that human bonds and relationship building are placed at the forefront of meeting child play needs. Among the things that could be promptly implemented, is an imperative need to separate the needs of families living in TA from the needs of individuals. As such, in case of mixed TA units, visitor policies could for instance be regulated and modified in terms of who they affect and could instead be geared towards reducing the isolation of children and instead offer the opportunity to engage in shared play. Instead of designing and applying policies thinking about building and spaces, policies need to be designed thinking about actual people and their various needs and expectations.

Of course, for these recommendations to be seriously heeded by policymakers, we have also found that a huge normative shift in the way we conceptualise play and its importance is required. Indeed, if we encourage the visualisation of play in TA as an interdisciplinary focus area for collaboration across public, private, and third-sector authorities and recognise children’s play needs as spanning the housing sector and the health, economic, and social spheres, then perhaps policy could move toward the direction of a holistic, interdisciplinary approach. The ultimate goal would be to align both housing policy and urban planning with child health and understanding that an investment in children early on is, ultimately, a better way to spend resources given that you would not have to remedy the damage and intervene once the very same children become adults. This can be kickstarted by breaking down policy silos within local authorities, which could then lead to fostering a set of collaborative capabilities that can become the new blueprint even for other policy issues and domains.

Research and article by:

Lorenzo Dall'Omo, graduate of Innovation, public policy and public value MPA at UCL.

Safaa Yaseen, graduate of Global health Msc at UCL and medical student at University of Birmingham.

Anna Pearl Johnson, graduate of Innovation, public policy and public value MPA at UCL and social policy research consultant at Rocket Science.

With thanks to: