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Dr Jennifer Wills Lamacq
Children, young people and families, Developmental, Health and wellbeing

‘Good quality play looks like freedom, autonomy, and flow’

Chartered Psychologist Dr Jennifer Wills Lamacq, an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, recently gave evidence at a Levelling Up Housing and Communities Committee (LUHCC) hearing.

07 March 2024

By Ella Rhodes

The inquiry is exploring how planning, building, and urban design could improve children's and young people's health and wellbeing. Ella Rhodes spoke with her about the importance of play and engaging with policymakers using evidence from psychology.

How did you come to give evidence at the Levelling Up Housing and Communities Committee inquiry?

There was a call for written evidence into the LUHCC inquiry into children, young people and the built environment. As this is something that chimes with all my interests – professional, research, and personal – I was keen to put together something that conveyed how deeply child development is linked to opportunities in the wider community.

The deadline for evidence was New Year's Day – handy timing as I had some rare time off over Christmas, which gave me time to put something together. I then received an invitation to give oral evidence to the committee on a panel alongside other experts, in January.

What was that experience like?

It was great! I was fortunate to share a panel with some excellent people, including fellow psychologist Professor Helen Dodd. As a panel, our knowledge and expertise complemented each other so we were able to address slightly different areas whilst also building on each other's points. 

Communication about the process and procedures in the lead-up was great, which helped everything go smoothly. I was really struck by how involved and interested the MPs were in what we had to say, and they were very supportive of our contributions. It was really satisfying to hear their positive reactions!  

What message did you want to get across?

Children having good opportunities to play and to safely be part of their community is essential. Play looks different for babies, children, and teenagers but the vital functions are the same. Our young generation has far fewer safe opportunities for good quality play, and we risk long-term negative consequences on their physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and language development...and more!

Good quality play looks like freedom, autonomy, and flow. It is child-led, flexible, and provides a way to interact with and make sense of the world. Good play can take many forms – physical, creative, logical, imaginative, sensory. A young child chases around a park pretending to be a dragon, a teenager hangs out with friends in a safe warm space, a child with disabilities uses something to interact with their senses in a new way; in all cases, the child perceives it as fun, uncertain, and non-directed by adults.

If the government want to improve things like health, mental health, education, behaviour, and even employment, then there needs to be proactive, intentional planning for children in the built environment. At present, there is no particular minister or department that has responsibility for children in that way. Play is not the responsibility of schools, and it is also not under the control of parents; if there is nowhere safe to go play, then there is nowhere to go! Children don't disappear if you ignore them – so something has to be done.

Some of the other experts had fascinating research to share about the positive impact of green space on physical health, about how whole communities benefit from children playing out, and how things like independent travel can protect mental health.

Are you planning to get involved with policy-related work again in future?

Absolutely. I think particularly as a member of a small profession, in Educational Psychology, we have to find ways to show people what we know: we are not always approached directly and there is a danger of being drowned out by louder voices with more vested interests. We are experts in applying psychology to all aspects of child development and, like other psychologists, we are good at formulating complex information into meaningful ideas.

I believe that psychology has a great deal to offer policy work and it was heartening to have the chance to show that to the committee. At the moment, I'm particularly concerned about the threat to Educational Psychology training, particularly after the announcement of the proposed closure of the UCL PALS courses, the general shortage of Educational Psychologists, and the serious ramifications of that for children, young people, and their families and schools. So, watch this space!