Child’s Play: It’s a Social Justice Issue

“Grownups are all about numbers. When you tell them you have a new friend, they never ask about what matters. They never askWhat does his voice sound like? What games does he like best? Does he collect butterflies? They askHow old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make? Only then do they think they know him. If you told a grownup that you saw a beautiful red brick house with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof, they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them you saw a house worth 100 thousand francs. Then they can claim, What a pretty house!” – The Little Prince

From my window I can hear the sounds of children at play. Their giggles and chants echo what childhood should be—a carefree time to explore, play, and challenge oneself. Only, despite the appearance this boisterous group provides, this is not the case for many children. In fact for many children play has become an issue of social justice.

The idea of social justice has been discussed for hundreds of years. The actual term “social justice” was first introduced by the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in 1840, as he found himself challenged by some of the byproducts of the industrial revolution. Many definitions of social justice have been offered over the years, from the way advantages and disadvantages are distributed within a society to a more robust definition offered by Michael Novak, which states that “Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being.” (1) Yet the one common thread that ties these definitions together is that despite our best efforts at stating otherwise the playing field has never been even.

Throughout history social justice has been used to frame discussions around politics, economics, health care, education, and housing, among others. Yet, it is less common for the term to be associated with children’s play. Play offers children a unique opportunity to face issues of social justice head on, while also providing them space to work through a myriad of scenarios that highlight just how aware children are of the disparities we face. I have always found it refreshing that children from the earliest of ages are able to jump right into a play session without giving a second thought to the race, religion, or ability level of the next child. Instead of worrying about what zip code each resides in they are more likely to measure success by who can jump the highest or collect the most bugs. It is through the eyes of adults that children learn to judge.

Public outdoor spaces and playgrounds remain among the best locations for children of various backgrounds and means to meet, mingle, and play. Yet, 20 percent, or one out of five children, do not have access to a public park or playground within a half mile walk from their home. This lack of access to public playspaces poses a challenge for a variety of reasons including the fact that higher obesity rates are linked to the proximity of a local park or playground. Add to this the greater likelihood of residents in lower income communities having fewer opportunities to access playspaces within walking distance from their homes and there is a clear inequity that emerges.

While at play children have the opportunity to engage diverse groups of children, all the while getting to know more about their peer’s interests, cultures, and how they make sense of the world. Along those lines, children also have a chance to act out instances of social injustice they have themselves witnessed or experienced. Whether these cases be those that occur at home, school, or experienced via the evening news there is a never ending supply of information for children to process. And process they do. The thought of children roll playing out natural disasters, violence, or even the impact of the economic downturn often makes adults uncomfortable, yet it is through play that children have an opportunity to come to terms with the social justice issues they encounter daily.

There is not only a need to ensure that all children have access to playspaces, but also a need to have playspaces that meet the needs of the largest audience possible. As we strive to increase the number of playspaces available in communities, we must also work towards creating spaces that will serve the largest population of people possible. Many playgrounds are created with 2-12 year olds in mind. While at first glance it appears to be the segment of the population most drawn to playful opportunities, the industry has unwittingly segregated those not falling into that group. There is a need for public playspaces that accommodate multigenerational needs, ranging from infants who are just beginning to learn about their world through their five senses to older adults who are committed to living an active and playful lifestyle. Not to forget teens and younger adults who also have their needs.

Another important group to consider in the creation of playspaces is people with disabilities. It is easy to default to the creation of a playground featuring ramps and transfer stations that allow children in wheelchairs to use the playspace, however, we must keep in mind that disabilities are as varied as are people. To be truly inclusive, playspaces need to accommodate those that have disabilities that are apparent (blind or visually impaired; use of a wheelchair) and also accommodate those with disabilities that are not as apparent (autism or learning disabilities). Furthermore, the challenge lays in not only meeting the needs of families with disabilities but providing all children, regardless of ability level, an opportunity to interact and play with each other within the same space.

In an ideal world children and families will have access to playspaces regardless of their social economic status, age, gender, or ability level. The equipment and surrounding space will not be “dumbed down ”, but become an environment in which all family members are able to play together side by side and be provided with as much stimulation, interaction, risk, and challenge as they can individually handle.


  1. Novak, M. (December, 2000). Defining social justice. First Things, 108.

Saidi E. (2011) The Playground as a Social Justice Institution. Unpublished manuscript.


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