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Reconceptualising play: balancing childcare, extra-curricular clubs and free play in contemporary childhoods

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posted on 22.11.2017, 15:46 by Sarah HollowaySarah Holloway, Helena Pimlott-WilsonHelena Pimlott-Wilson
This paper rethinks geographical approaches to children’s play in the Global North. One narrowly conceived strand of past research considered the erosion of outdoor free play, but overlooked children’s views of alternative play environments (e.g. out-of-school activities). A separate thread examined the feminisation of employment and growth in childcare, but investigations into children’s play in care-based environments are rare, and explorations of their ability to balance different play landscapes are lacking. This paper builds upon insights from both lines of research, and challenges their deficiencies to map out a more broadly conceived geography of play. Drawing on rigorous quantitative and qualitative research with middle- and working-class parents and children, the paper examines the socially-differentiated reconciliation of neighbourhood, extra-curricular and care-based play in contemporary British childhoods. The analysis highlights stark class differences in the balance between these play environments. Middle-class children’s elective engagement in extra-curricular activities results in reduced outdoor free play, but they have little control over the total time they play in care environments. Working class children have greater experience of playing out, but are underscheduled as they have less than desired access to play in structured activities and wraparound care. In conclusion, the paper argues that geographers must: (i) move beyond the romanticisation of free play and recognise children’s right to participate in a diversity of playful spaces; (ii) embrace an intergenerational approach which recognises that play is not a matter for children alone – adults can facilitate as well as limit play, but reliance on women’s unpaid labour makes play a feminist issue; and (iii) uncover play’s role in social reproduction as wider inequalities emerge in, and are reproduced through, children’s landscapes of play in times of austerity, whether as here in terms of class, or along other axes of social differentiation or location.


This research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (RES-000-22-4095) and Professor Holloway’s Philip Leverhulme Prize.



  • Geography and Environment

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Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers








HOLLOWAY, S.L. and PIMLOTT-WILSON, H., 2018. Reconceptualising play: balancing childcare, extra-curricular clubs and free play in contemporary childhoods. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 43 (3), pp.420-434.


John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Royal Geographical Society, with the Institute of British Geographers (© the authors)


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This paper was published as Gold Open Access by Wiley under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.