Sydney occupational therapy student advocates children's rights to free play

21 October 2016

“I chose the field of occupational therapy because I have always loved working with children with disabilities or physical ailments in orphanages and I could use play as an effective means and end goal in therapy,” said Mandi Mills, an international occupational therapy student from Colorado State University, speaking at a presentation earlier this month to staff and students from her home university, as well as those that hosted her at the Sydney Faculty of Health Sciences.

Sydney occupational therapy student advocates children's rights to free play
Sydney OT student Mandi Mills (Photo credit: University of Sydney)

Mandi’s presentation focused on a child’s right to play that practitioners can use within any environment. She drew on her international experiences, including her involvement on the University of Sydney’s Playground Project, to working as a pediatric occupational therapist in Colorado, and a recent visit to Indonesia at an inclusive school for children with disabilities.
Working on the Sydney Playground Project as part of a 12-week rotation, Mandi says play is difficult to define and a difficult concept to study. “Researchers of all disciplines have come together on this team because they believe children have great potential to play.”
The Sydney Playground Project, begun in 2009, is a multidisciplinary research project that adheres to the principle that play should be an integral part of children’s daily activities and the value of the many benefits associated with outdoor, non-structured play.
“The project aims to increase children’s physical activity, social skills and resilience through a simple, low-cost intervention that is carried out on the school playground,” said Senior Research Associate Jo Ragen. “Rather than adults scaffolding and structuring interventions for children to play, we wanted to find out how much children can do on their own without adult interaction.”
The research has found that children became more imaginative, creative, and social in their play adults stepped back and they were given loose-part play material, including items such as car and bike tires, wooden planks, cardboard boxes, hay bales and long tubes.
“The items are delivered to the playgrounds of participating primary schools located throughout the greater Sydney region and children (both typically developing and those with disabilities such as autism) are able to make their own decisions on what, where, or how they want to engage with each other and the materials,” said Jo Ragen.
Mandi says the Sydney Playground Project has shifted her thinking into working with a community or entire population, versus solely an individual client in a clinical setting. “Here, I am out on the playgrounds or at parks watching children interact with materials or each other, and constantly thinking about environmental influences.”
“I cannot thank the research team enough for this opportunity. I have had an amazing twelve weeks exploring the city of Sydney through my involvement with the Sydney Playground Project.”

Learn more about studying occupational therapy. Contact OzTREKK’s Australian Occupational Therapy Schools Admissions Officer Krista McVeigh at