Poor diet, sedentary indoor lifestyles and a lack of physical activity are having a catastrophic impact on the health and wellbeing of the UK population and are costing the NHS and wider economy billions of pounds every year. With many children already obese before they even begin primary school, it has been widely claimed that this generation of children will have a lower life expectancy than their parents. That’s quite a statement, particularly when so much could be done to prevent this shocking state of affairs.
Tackling the obesity epidemic is one of the greatest societal challenges of the 21st century and experts agree that healthy lifestyle habits should start as early in a child’s life as possible. Despite the fact that parents and carers have responsibility for instilling healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle during their children’s earliest years, many are not. As a result, schools are increasingly on the front line of dealing with the problems that presents.
A culture of physical activity API is a leading trade body within the play sector, representing the interests of the manufacturers, installers, designers and distributors of both outdoor and indoor play equipment and safety surfacing. Around 70 per cent of the API’s members supply the education market, designing, creating and installing learning and play spaces, multi-use games areas, play equipment and resources to schools and early years settings across the UK.
Companies operating in this market are seeing more and more demand for playgrounds, play spaces and outdoor play equipment that will increase physical activity levels amongst children, not just during PE and sport, but in everyday school life too.
Many schools are introducing a holistic approach to supporting healthy children by embedding a culture of physical activity into every aspect of school life; for instance, teaching as much of the curriculum outside, as possible, creating ‘garden and grow’ areas, becoming ‘forest schools’ or opening their playground before and after school hours.
The role of schools Recognition of the vital role of schools – and of play – in improving child health was reflected last summer when the government announced £150 million of investment in school sport, PE and physical activity – the School Sport Premium – which was further extended into 2015/2016 as part of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.
Sport Premium expenditure is at schools’ discretion but should be used to improve provision of PE and sport, to develop physical literacy and encourage physical activity as part of a lifelong healthy lifestyle.
The Youth Sport Trust has produced a helpful self-review tool to guide schools on how to spend the School Sport Premium.
Active outdoor play becomes part of a child’s ongoing lifestyle and is just as important as PE and sport in tackling child obesity. We are reminding head teachers that outdoor play equipment which promotes physical activity and movement skills is eligible for School Sport Premium funding and can leave a long term legacy. We urge schools to use every opportunity to use this investment to create a meaningful and lasting health legacy for children.
Assisting schools Further investment in school sport, PE and physical activity is expected this spring when Sport England launches the Primary School Sport Facilities fund, an £18 million fund to help more schools provide high-quality sports facilities. Schools, which currently have little or no outside space for PE or sports, are expected to receive around £30,000 to spend on a range of specially created packages, tailored to their individual needs. Sport England say the fund will help provide outdoor multi-sport areas which can be used both within the curriculum and out of school hours.
Benefits of outdoor play Of course, as well as supporting physical development and movement skills, outdoor play has a raft of benefits for children. There is plentiful evidence to support this from wide-ranging research organisations, academic institutions, play campaigning organisations, education and health organisations amongst others.
Some of the chief benefits are emotional and behavioural – outdoor play provides independence, reduces anxiety and helps to improve concentration. It can make for an effective learning environment, especially for boys and SEN pupils, helping children to build resilience, experience challenge and take risks in a positive way. It can enhance creativity, self awareness and self esteem.
There are also physical benefits in the form of improved mental and physical health, strength, co-ordination, spatial awareness and sensory development. Finally, there is the environmental benefit of improved interaction with the natural world, which promotes environmental citizenship.
Guidance on installation For schools looking to improve their outdoor space or playground or seeking practical ways to increase physical activity levels, the API is an invaluable first port of call. The association’s website offers a wide range of helpful advice, resources and links on fundraising, planning and project guidance, design and risk and full details for every member company.
API member companies are experts in play provision and understand the unique needs, demands and pressures that schools face. They provide bespoke play solutions, meaning an expert consultant will meet you face to face to discuss your school’s needs and the outcomes you want from the project.
Whether it’s a complete playground transformation to provide a Multi-Use Games Area (MUGA) or Play Area (MUPA), an outdoor classroom for all-weather learning or an update to existing space or equipment, schools should seek out design recommendations based on expert knowledge, as well as guidance throughout the installation process, including after care, inspection and maintenance advice.
When it comes to buying play equipment, drawings of products, playgrounds and play schemes can sometimes look alike to customers.
But the reason that cut-price operators can deliver cheaper deals is because they may be compromising on quality, standards, materials and safety.
For peace of mind, making API membership mandatory in any play procurement process is a sensible step.
The API membership badge is a quality mark and is firm proof that a play company is experienced, reputable, financially secure and stable, operates to the highest standards and abides by the association’s strict Professional Code of Conduct.
Things to consider Schools need to ask certain questions of any company it is considering hiring for a design project. They should find out how the design meets the school’s objectives, what positive outcomes will it deliver for children and staff, and whether the playground delivered will match the drawings presented?
Companies should be asked to provide details of similar projects (at least three) completed in the last 12 months in the form of case studies and references demonstrating competence, commitment, credibility, relevant experience and expertise.
Companies should also provide third party test certificates for the products it will be using on the project as well as its annual certificate of API membership, which is the only way to provide guaranteed credibility. Companies stating they are ‘Founder members of the API’ are not necessarily current members so ask to see their current membership certificate, check the API website (www.api-play.org) or call the API for confirmation.
Ask what specific expertise a company can bring to the project – this enables you to evaluate if there is something valuable that a supplier can provide in addition to creating your new play space, for example, expertise in working with natural materials or experience of carrying out stakeholder consultations.
Undertake a credit check on any potential supplier and explore their trading history. Remember ratings change over time. This is inexpensive and could save a lot of inconvenience and cost by ensuring a supplier is financially sound.
The API monitors its members’ financial stability through rigorous credit checking and regular financial performance monitoring.
Request that the company includes costs for an independent post-installation inspection on completion –this provides reassurance from a trustworthy third party that a site is free from flaws, fitting problems or safety hazards prior to children using it. It is important to remember that all play equipment requires regular inspection and maintenance.
If something goes wrong and you are dissatisfied with the company’s performance, the API offers a free technical dispute mediation service to all clients buying from API member companies.
Transport for London (TfL) has announced a new programme that will see 'Healthy Streets officers' work across London’s boroughs to reduce school-run traffic and encourage greater walking, cycling and public transport use.