As the number of play spaces in the community declines, school playgrounds are becoming increasingly important, often representing the only opportunity some children have for outdoor play, writes Mark Hardy, chair of the Association of Play Industries (API)
The arrival of Spring brings with it the promise of better weather and longer evenings, and for many parents the chance to visit their local parks and playgrounds so their children can play, meet friends and get active. Playgrounds are so much a part of the fabric of our communities that they can often get taken for granted. Until, that is, they are no longer there.
Research shows that opportunities for outdoor play are dwindling. The Association of Play Industries, whose members provide outdoor play facilities for children, has uncovered an alarming decline in playground provision across England.
To obtain an accurate and up-to-date picture of local authority playground provision in England and how it is changing, we 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.
Local authorities 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
With 448 playgrounds closed or closing, this research has uncovered a decline so steep in England’s play provision that none of us can afford to ignore it. Play is fundamental to all children – essential to their 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.
We also know that one-fifth of children experience mental illness. Evidence is 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.
Schools play a vital role in encouraging children of all abilities to be active. Every school has their own unique diverse requirements and any new play area must reflect that diversity. With fewer and fewer community play spaces, it is important that schools enable children to play.
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 existing playgrounds or by creating brand new outdoor spaces.
The benefits to wellbeing
All children are naturally hard-wired to play and it is fundamental to 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.
Schools can play an important role in the renaissance now required in children’s play across the country – in opening up the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor play to children from all backgrounds. For many children living in deprived areas – who are more than twice as likely to be obese than those in more affluent areas – school and community playgrounds are often their only chance to play outdoors.
Free, unsupervised play, where children develop their own games and rules, helps them to develop their creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills. Play also improves a child’s ability to focus and concentrate. Incorporating physical activity into the school day has a positive effect on their behaviour and their ability to focus for longer periods of time.
The importance of children’s play, along with getting children moving more generally, has a natural synergy with education and the mental and physical health of young people. Access to safe and free areas to play is essential for a healthy and happy childhood, as fundamental as getting enough sleep and having a good diet. Children’s increasingly sedentary lifestyles will impact their health and wellbeing as well as their academic performance.
How API members can help your school
If you are considering creating or improving a play space but you’re not sure where to start, API members are experienced in guiding you through the process. Members of the API are the leading play companies in the UK and understand the budgetary and time constraints schools can face.
The API help schools provide the very best opportunities for children to get active. The Schools Get Active Hub (www.api-play.org/schoolsgetactive) has lots of useful advice, information and case studies from other schools who, for example, have made the most of small budgets, limited space or whose current play equipment needs replacing.
API member companies are used to dealing with the challenges and constraints of providing schools with play areas that meet all their needs. By using exceptional design skills to transform unusable spaces, they create facilities for children of all ages and abilities.
When designing and building your school’s play area and equipment you can be sure that an API member will be professional and abide by a strict professional Code of Conduct. They will have a proven track record of quality work and the expertise, knowledge and skills to ensure that the project is completed to the highest possible standards.
All members of the Association of Play Industries are trustworthy and regularly monitored for financial stability so you have peace of mind. They understand the importance of safety and the importance of risk by designing spaces with built-in challenges. Members are committed to providing the best service; before, during and after the project you will benefit from long-term aftercare and support.