With play provision in decline, it’s time to recognise the importance of outdoor play for all children, writes Mark Hardy
Despite the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child stating that children have the right to play, opportunities for outdoor play are dwindling. The Association of Play Industries has uncovered an alarming decline in playground provision across England.
To obtain an accurate picture of local authority playground provision in England, the Association submitted freedom of information requests to 326 local authorities. 283 local authorities responded, revealing that between 2014 and 2016, 214 playgrounds had been closed, with a further 234 planned closures between 2016 and 2019.
Councils cited lack of budget to maintain, repair or replace equipment as reasons for the closures. With no dedicated funding for playgrounds from central government or grants from third sector institutions like the Big Lottery Fund, the provision and upkeep of play spaces falls on local authority budgets which are also being squeezed.
Play is fundamental to all children’s emotional, social, cognitive and physical development. Many children do not have gardens or outside space, so their local playground represents one of their few opportunities to enjoy outdoor play and activity. These cuts will negatively impact children of all abilities, fuelling the childhood obesity crisis as more and more children stay indoors and engage in sedentary and solitary activities on their phones and tablets.
Health and wellbeing
Evidence is also mounting about the positive association between outdoor play, physical activity and mental health. The benefits of physical activity and unstructured play in good quality, well-maintained and stimulating public playgrounds cannot be overlooked.
Research from Fields in Trust shows for the first time at national level a direct and statistically significant link between public parks and green spaces and health and wellbeing. The research establishes a link between an individual’s use of parks and green spaces and an improvement in their physical health, life satisfaction, sense of worth, happiness and anxiety levels. But despite this, UK parks, playgrounds and green spaces are under threat and facing an uncertain future.
As the number of play spaces in the community declines, schools’ playgrounds are becoming increasingly important, often representing the only opportunity some children have for outdoor play. For children with SEN, this can be particularly important, as access to suitable play areas can be even more restricted.
Schools play a vital role in encouraging children of all abilities to be active. Every school has its own unique, diverse requirements and any new play area must reflect that diversity. With care and planning, the play opportunities that schools provide can help to fill the gap created by local authority budget cuts to play provision. Many schools are looking to provide the best possible facilities for their pupils whatever their abilities, by improving accessibility within existing playgrounds or by creating brand new inclusive outdoor spaces.
All children are naturally hard-wired to play and it is essential for their development and wellbeing. If inactivity becomes the norm, increasing numbers of children of all abilities will find their lives blighted by poor mental health, obesity and social isolation. For children, play is not a luxury, it is a basic human right.
Mark Hardy is Chair of the Association of Play Industries: