There is an ever-increasing call for research that extends beyond the study of children’s disorders, deficits, and disabilities, and as such, the study of well-being is a significant up-and-coming frontier in research regarding child development (Pollard and Lee, 2003). In spite of this, there remains a lack of knowledge on what positive well-being for children actually looks like (Fattore, Mason, and Watson, 2007). From an occupational science perspective, well-being is closely linked to participation in occupation (Hocking, 2009) and is conceptualised as a synthesis of doing, being, becoming and belonging (Wilcock and Hocking, 2015). Given that participation in occupation is a significant predictor of well-being, it seems plausible to argue that participation in play is imperative for child well-being, since play is a significant childhood occupation in most contexts globally (Roopnarine, 2011). However, play is neither included as an indicator nor as a domain in the national set of child well-being indicators in Ireland (Barron, 2013). Thus, establishing the role of play as a contributing factor to children’s well-being is of utmost importance. This paper will present a brief synopsis of a research study that aimed to explore children’s conceptualisation of play and happiness (as a proxy measure of well-being) in Ireland in 2015. This paper was published in a peer reviewed journal (Journal of Occupational Science) in September 2017 and can be found at: https://doi.org/10.1080/14427591.2017.1377105.
A focused ethnographic approach was used to explore children’s conceptualisations of happiness amongst children living in Ireland. The study employed a mosaic approach (Clark and Moss, 2001); combining visual, spatial, and language-based methods. Twenty-three participants aged between 6 and 8 years were recruited through contact with three local primary schools in the southern region of Ireland. The participants’ accounts were gathered and collaborative thematic analysis (Carpenter and Suto, 2008) was conducted to form the basis of the findings.
Findings and discussion
Findings identified the centrality of play, place and people as contributing to children’s happiness. Children named multiple occupations as play (e.g. doing maths, reading, baking) which they identified as contributing to their happiness, when they were experienced as fun. Play locations identified as important to study children, included private and public places at home, in school and in the community: natural and built environments. Thus, an expanded view of play emerges as a subjective aspect of childhood that is intrinsically connected to well-being and happiness. This, in turn, challenges adult assumptions on what is considered play or not play. This study illustrates specific perspectives that children have on this topic of well-being and argues for the rationale to include play when considering subjective well-being. While many of the categories identified may have been anticipated from examining works of previous authors (e.g. well-being is about participation in occupation), the centrality of children’s participation in occupation, in particular play, across all domains is highly significant. This finding illustrates the extent to which children perceive their participation in play to positively influence their overall sense of happiness and well-being.
The findings have potential application in a variety of settings (for example early childhood research; early childhood education and curriculum development; health promotion efforts). They also point to appropriate issues that should be addressed, both at policy and political level. While the importance of relationships cannot be overlooked; family support and infrastructural supports, for both schools and community development in its broadest sense, are also necessary if we are to maximise opportunities for play and well-being among children living in Ireland. Unless play is valued and prioritised as contributing to children’s well-being, it will continue to be seen as a frivolous occupation, replaced by more measurable alternatives.
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Alice Moore is a BScOT and MScOT graduate of University College Cork and currently exploring PhD research on outdoor playspaces, participation and social inclusion. Dr. Helen Lynch supervised Alice’s Masters research project, summarised here. Dr. Helen Lynch, Alice Moore, Linda Horgan, and Dr. Claire Edwards of UCC, have recently been awarded a grant from the NDA CEUD where they are looking intergenerational participation through the Universal Design of outdoor parks and playgrounds.