Active play, healthy brains

The government’s Healthy Pupil Capital Fund includes money for school playgrounds, as it is recognised that active play can help tackle obesity and inactivity in children and young people

Playgrounds, as well as sports facilities and school kitchens, are included in the government’s Healthy Pupil Capital Fund, which goes towards school building projects that could help tackle obesity and inactivity in children and young people. This is welcome news, given the amount of public parks closing down or at risk of closing down.

The Association of Play Industries (API) submitted Freedom of Information requests to 326 local authorities to get an insight into local authority playground provision in England and how it is changing. The results showed that between 2014 and 2016, 214 playgrounds had been closed, with a further 234 planned closures between 2016 and 2019.

Local authorities cited lack of budget to maintain, repair or replace equipment as reasons for the closures.

This worrying picture is backed up by Fields in Trust research which showed that nearly one in five people (16 per cent) say that their local park or green space has been under threat of being lost or built on.

Play helps mental health

Mental health problems affect about one in 10 children and young people, according to the Mental Health Foundation.
The link between play and wellbeing is well documented thanks to numerous studies into how play is crucial for children’s emotional, social, cognitive and physical development.

One study from the American Medical Association said: “Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play outdoors.”

The Mental Health Foundation states that “being in good physical health, eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise, and having time and freedom to play indoors and outdoors” can help keep children and young people mentally well.

Many children do not have gardens so a trip to their local playground represents one of their few opportunities to enjoy outdoor play.
Indeed, research from the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE), showed that 95 per cent of parks professionals are concerned that a lack of investment in parks will have health and social impacts.

Health benefits of parks

Recent research from Fields in Trust reveals a direct link between public parks and green spaces and health and wellbeing. It demonstrates that parks and green spaces provide people with over £34 billion of health and wellbeing benefits. These are a result of people enjoying greater life satisfaction including both improved physical and mental health, directly as a result of using regularly using parks and green spaces.

Compiled using HM Treasury approved research methodology, Revaluing Parks and Green Spaces demonstrates National Health Service savings of at least £111 million per year. This figure is based solely on prevented GP visits and doesn’t include savings from non-referrals for treatment or prescriptions – meaning the actual savings to the taxpayer will be significantly higher.

The report also calculates that parks provide a total economic value to each person in the UK of just over £30 per year.

The value of parks and green spaces is higher for individuals from lower socio‑economic groups and also from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. This means that any loss of parks and green spaces will disproportionately impact disadvantaged and underrepresented communities, precisely those who value them the most.

Helen Griffiths, chief executive of Fields in Trust, said: “This report clearly demonstrates the economic and wellbeing benefits that parks and green spaces bring to people across the UK. At a time when parks and green spaces are under threat this is valuable evidence that the loss of green space is hugely damaging to people’s welfare.”

Association of Play Industries Chair, Mark Hardy, said: “Now for the first time, Fields in Trust have quantifiable evidence of the value of parks and green spaces. The Wellbeing Value associated with the frequent use of local parks and green spaces is worth £34.2 billion per year to the entire UK adult population and parks are estimated to save the NHS around £111 million.

“There is also further evidence that our parks and green spaces contribute to a preventative health agenda, reduce future Exchequer expenditure, reduce health inequalities and increase social cohesion and equality. These spaces have been taken for granted – an essential part of the fabric of our lives – and now they are under threat.

“Such is the positive impact of our parks and green spaces, that to lose them will further exacerbate the obesity crisis and rising mental health problems, as well as increasing levels of loneliness across many sectors of the population.”

Play England, meanwhile, is calling on the government to increase funding for play. It states that investment in play has been cut from £235 million prior to 2010 to zero in 2018. Between 2012 and 2017, Sport England received £1 billion from the government and National Lottery funding and Play England is calling for these levels of national funding to also be made available for play.

As the number of community play spaces declines, playgrounds in schools are becoming increasingly important. As such, funding from the Healthy Pupil Capital Fund, which comes from money raised from the ‘sugar tax’, is welcome news and schools are urged to apply for funding.

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