The Urban Institute, Heriot-Watt University in collaboration with the James Hutton Institute


The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out a series of universal children’s rights, including Article 31, known as the right to play. Play is central to children's health and development, and outdoor play in particular offers a range of benefits including enjoyment, socialisation, physical activity, learning and skills acquisition.  There are, however, growing concerns that children’s lives are becoming ever more dominated by indoor, screen-based, sedentary activities at the expense of participation in active, outdoor pursuits.  At the same time, it is not yet clear how the different types of environments available to children across the urban-rural gradient impact on outdoor play.  The project will explore and compare urban and rural children's outdoor play participation, environments, and experience using a mixed methods approach. 

The quantitative element will consist of secondary analysis of existing social survey datasets to investigate levels of participation in outdoor activity amongst rural and urban young people.  Datasets already identified as suitable for this study are the ESRC-funded Millennium Cohort Study (UK) and The Scottish Government’s Growing Up in Scotland study. Further data sources, e.g. Northern Ireland Life and Times, Kids' Life and Times, Young Life and Times Survey will also be considered for inclusion by the student. These longitudinal data sets will allow for cross-sectional analyses to compare play/outdoor activity amongst urban and rural children; to explore changes over time; and to explore the role of income, gender and class on these patterns. In addition, there are possibilities for identifying a subsample of children who have moved from urban to rural localities (or vice versa) and investigating the effects of such relocation on outdoor play. Emerging findings from the statistical analysis will help to shape qualitative data collection, for example by identifying age thresholds where behaviour or experience changes significantly. 

The qualitative (primary research) element will involve case studies (at least one each of urban and rural) which will explore young people’s experiences of outdoor play and outdoor activities in depth and develop an inventory of playful environments. The methods used for the primary data collection will ultimately be designed by the student but are likely to include visual methods to engage with child participants e.g. participatory mapping, use of touch table technology, soft GIS. 

This PhD project will be supervised by Dr Caroline Brown, Dr Sarah Payne and Dr Kathryn Colley. 

This is a fully funded ESRC studentship, provided through the Scottish Graduate School for Social Sciences. It will cover tuition fees and provide an annual stipend of approximately £14,800.

We are looking for a student with an outstanding academic background and research potential. You will need to be able to demonstrate capability in both qualitative and quantitative research approaches. All applicants are expected to meet the ESRC Eligibility criteria summarized in the ESRC Funding Guide

For a 1+3 studentship applicants must hold or be predicted a First or a good 2:1 undergraduate degree in the social sciences. Some background in statistical methods would be an advantage. 

For a +3 award then you must also hold or be completing a Masters degree in the social sciences, which satisfies the ESRC 2015 methods training requirements. Students should be able to demonstrate abilities in both qualitative and quantitative research approaches.
An applicant must be a United Kingdom citizen or be a resident of another European Union country. European Union applicants who have not been resident in the UK for the last three years before the start of their studentship are only eligible for a fees-only award. 

How to apply
Please complete our online application form.  Please select PhD programme D449 (PhD Urban Studies) and include the project reference, title and supervisor on your application. Please also provide a supporting statement, a CV, a copy of your degree certificates and relevant detailed transcripts and at least one academic or technical reference. You must also provide proof of your ability in the English language (if English is not your mother tongue or if you have not already studied for a degree that was taught in English). We require an IELTS certificate showing an overall score of at least 6.5 with no component scoring less than 6.0 or a TOEFL certificate with a minimum score of 90 points.

Please contact Dr Caroline Brown ( for informal information.

The closing date for applications is 6 April 2018.