We all share a responsibility to ensure that children are able to play and exercise enough to safeguard their physical and mental health – parents, schools, communities, local authorities and government all have a role to play.
However, competing priorities can often mean that facilitating children’s outdoor play can get pushed down the to-do list.
The positive impact that outdoor play has on children in terms of their concentration, academic achievement, physical fitness and overall wellbeing means those schools which don’t prioritise play could be at a serious disadvantage.
The effects upon children of unstructured outdoor play, preferably with some built-in risk, are profound.
Play is the foundation for learning. In fact, play is learning. It allows children to develop their creativity, imagination and problem-solving skills.
Play is the earliest manifestation of a child’s desire to learn and of their thirst for knowledge. It is second nature to them which means learning is too. To curtail play is to curtail learning.
Play also improves a child’s ability to focus and concentrate. Incorporating physical activity into a child’s day has a positive effect on their behaviour and their ability to focus for longer periods of time. Children are inherently active and without regular opportunities for outdoor play they can have a tendency to let off steam at far less appropriate times.
A child’s ability to interact well with those around them and develop positive relationships is an important factor in their overall school success and play is vital in developing essential social skills. For children to get the most out of play they have to display empathy, negotiate roles, take turns, resolve conflict, navigate rules and assess risk.
Outdoor play fosters children’s emotional and psychological resilience. Through free, unstructured and active play children learn how to manage their impulses and emotions. Children instinctively test and learn what their limits are, often through challenging or risky play.
They experiment with emotions such as fear, aggression, trust, anger and loss – all at a pace which feels safe to them and that they control.
What’s more, a stimulating outdoor environment will help children develop fundamental moving skills from an early age, developing into more complex capabilities later on. Unstructured, free play builds motivation, confidence and competence to move and helps to reinforce the idea that regular movement and exercise is the norm.
Nowhere to play
The onus on schools to be a key provider of play opportunities has recently taken on a whole new significance. Evidence is mounting showing an alarming decline in community play provision and the sad truth is that for many children, particularly in deprived areas, the outdoor playtime they get at school might be their lot.
The API’s NowhereToPlay report uncovered an alarming decline in community playground provision. Between 2014/15 and 2015/16 local authorities across England closed 214 children’s playgrounds with plans to close a further 234. And the Heritage Lottery Fund report highlighted cuts to budgets for the running of parks, with 92 per cent of park managers reporting cuts to their budgets over the past three years.
The downward trend in park and playground provision is happening fast and, in many cases, it will be irreversible; once a community playground or park is lost it is often lost forever. The result is that free play and activity is not a given for many children. Furthermore, it is the children in deprived areas who are hit hardest by the cuts as they are less likely to have access to gardens or outside space in which to move.
Outdoor play and obesity
We now know that the obesity crisis among children though widespread, is much more prevalent in poorer areas.
Obesity has increased since 2014/15 with over a fifth of children in Reception and a third in Year 6 now overweight or obese. Children living in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to be obese than those living in the least deprived areas.
Inactivity and the lack of outdoor play is a lead factor in the childhood obesity epidemic. Playing out with friends has been replaced by solitary, indoor and sedentary activities involving TV, tablets and phones and only a third of parents in a recent study said their children’s favourite activity was outdoor play.
Obese children are far more likely to become obese adults. Adult obesity is associated with increased risk of a number of serious health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. The obesity crisis will continue to grow as the opportunities for children to play outdoors diminishes.
The role of schools in play
It is now more important than ever that schools are able to provide the play spaces and equipment which children so desperately need. Schools can go some way towards compensating for the lack of opportunities for outdoor play in the UK.
Schools can also play an important part in changing the fortunes of some of those children without anywhere else to play – indeed, they can transform their lives and improve their prospects into adulthood. But for many schools their time and budgetary constraints mean it can be difficult to prioritise.
How can the API help?
The API help schools provide the very best opportunities for children to be 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 is run down.
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.
If you are considering creating or improving a play space but don’t know where to start, API members are experienced in guiding you through what can seem like a daunting process. Members of the API are the leading play companies in the UK and understand schools’ budgetary and time constraints.
In safe hands
By entrusting an API member to design and build your school’s play area and equipment you can be sure that they’re professional and abide by a strict professional Code of Conduct.
They’re experienced and have a proven track record of quality work. Their expertise, knowledge and skills ensure that the project is completed to the highest possible standards.
API members 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.
Lastly, API members are committed. Before, during and after the project you will benefit from long-term service and support.
Channelling ‘childish’ behaviour
Children are hard-wired to be active and play. An holistic approach to education, which recognises the central role of free play and activity in a child’s physical, psychological and emotional development, is an approach which maximises each and every child’s full potential.
Incorporating outdoor play into the school day works with, rather than against, a child’s natural instinct to learn through movement, activity and play. Unstructured play will improve their school experience in so many ways – by engaging their imaginations, enhancing their social interactions and stimulating their physical activity. It will also positively impact the classroom environment by improving learning and behaviour.
Learning is heightened by channelling children’s desire to move, play, invent games, challenge, tease, compete, cooperate, fall out, make-up again, design their own rules and then modify them as they go along. Through play and activity they explore, not just their physicality, but their reasoning skills, language, numeracy, social skills and emotions.
The aims of schools, of government, of parents – and of children themselves – all align. We all want young people to fulfil their potential and achieve academically. We want them to have a well-rounded education so that they leave school well-prepared for further education or employment. We also want them to be happy, healthy, well‑adjusted and thoughtful individuals. All these objectives are well-served by providing great opportunities for outdoor play in schools.