Investing in outdoor play

Chair of the Association of Play Industries, Mark Hardy, presents new research showing that children’s access to community outdoor play spaces is a ‘postcode lottery’ and discusses how important it is that schools prioritise outdoor play.
Access to public play spaces in the UK is unfair and unequal, according to new research. A Freedom of Information survey carried out by the Association of Play Industries (API) has revealed that some UK regions have almost five times the free-to-access play provision of others.
The API’s Equal Play campaign is calling on the Government to level up the life chances of UK children by ensuring equal access for all to public play spaces. In the UK, public playgrounds are the number one location for children’s outdoor play.  Free, outdoor play is vital for children’s physical and mental health and without it normal childhood development is curtailed. The research highlights the ‘postcode lottery’ facing children and families, with some areas well-served and others seriously deprived of community play facilities.

The vast majority of British children live in built-up urban areas, and those from the one in eight UK households without a garden (1 in 5 in London), rely on public play areas for outdoor play and exercise. For many children, community playgrounds are their only chance to get active and play outdoors. Disabled children’s access to, and enjoyment from, playgrounds also needs to improve.

The research finds children in London have access to almost five times fewer public playgrounds than children in Scotland.

The West Midlands has the worst play provision in the UK with 929 children per playground. It also has the worst childhood obesity rates in England (Year 6).  

London has the second worst play provision in the UK with 866 children per playground.  

Every playground in the North-East and the North-West serves over 600 children, compared to just 196 in Scotland.

Welsh children enjoy access to over twice the number of playgrounds than children in London.

The decline in play opportunities

Digital culture has created a strong inducement for children to stay indoors. At the same time, inequitable public outdoor play provision leaves many children with nowhere safe and local to play. Children are being pulled indoors by screens and pushed away from outdoor play because of patchy provision, as cash-strapped Local Authorities face increasingly difficult choices in how they allocate their budgets. Funding for outdoor play areas is often sacrificed in favour of other demands, particularly over the last two years. Yet never before has outdoor play been so important in tackling soaring childhood obesity rates and mental health issues - problems hugely exacerbated by the pandemic.
Children’s fundamental need to play

For children, play is as basic a need as sleep, a nutritious diet, supportive care, education and human interaction. Without any one of these things a child’s normal development will be impeded physically, mentally and emotionally. We wouldn’t dream of leaving any one of these elements to mere chance, but we do precisely this for outdoor play.

The problem lies in the assumption that outdoor play is a nice-to-have, an ‘extra’, rather than an essential component of childhood. The truth is that without outdoor play children are denied crucial aspects of their development where they learn about relationships, resilience, compromise, self-reliance, problem-solving and risk taking. They will not build muscle, develop essential motor and coordination skills or know the joy of physical activity. They will not learn how to stave off boredom using their own ingenuity and will default back to their screens. They will not burn enough calories to stay at a healthy weight.

We really are setting our children up to fail. Never before has a generation moved so little and been so unhappy and unhealthy. The frustrating fact is that given half a chance children would be out playing just as much as previous generations - in other words, if playgrounds are there, children use them. But a dearth of quality, local, ‘doorstep’ playgrounds, the lure of technology and an environment perceived as largely hostile to children’s outdoor play is driving them indoors in their droves.

The erosion of school playtime

Research for the British Psychological Society (BPS) has revealed that more than three-quarters of parents of primary-aged children believe play is now more than or just as important as academic catch-up, amid fears the pandemic has reduced opportunities for their children to engage in playtime at school.

Yet research shows that since 1995, children’s break times in the school day have been reduced by 45 minutes a week, resulting in eight out of ten children now having less than one hour of physical activity per day.

Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the BPS Division of Educational and Child Psychology, said: “It’s clear from the survey findings that play is valued highly by parents. We now need the government to take bold action and prioritise school playtime for our children’s development.

This isn’t an ‘ask’ for more playtime, it’s about reclaiming what has been lost. There needs to be adequate support, funding and resources for teachers who are already under increasing pressure to deliver the curriculum.”

Children of all ages learn whilst playing

Play is fundamental to the development of pupils’ physical and mental health. Free, outdoor play boosts learning, concentration, physical literacy, creativity, resilience, confidence and social skills.

Learning whilst playing is the foundation for all the learning experiences that will follow in a child’s school life. Without even realising, children develop knowledge, skills and lessons for life, and providing time, space, opportunity and a positive attitude to play benefits children of all ages. With one in three children overweight or obese by year 6 and child mental health problems at record levels, high-quality outdoor play equipment in schools is now more important than ever.

Children have natural energy and school playgrounds help to foster a lifelong love of play.  Outside spaces can get children moving during lesson time, break and lunch times; physical literacy levels will improve and schools report improvements in attainment, behaviour and wellbeing too.

School is the only safe place for some children to play

For children in some socially deprived communities, school may provide the only safe outdoor place to play and be physically active. Every child should play every day, and it will fall on many schools to ensure this happens for these children.

Invest in outdoor play

When schools improve their playgrounds and outdoor facilities, positive things happen. However, playground improvements can be a significant investment and seem a daunting prospect. As the UK’s leading play association, members of the API are reliable, trustworthy and financially sound, and they operate to the highest standards. They are also credible and backed by the API’s Professional Code of Conduct. API members are also experienced; they will provide evidence of previous work and references. They are also innovative - the API Charter ensures they design exceptional, high-quality play spaces for children of all ages and abilities.

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