Whilst scarcely a day passes without the issue of child obesity featuring in the news, the importance of play in enabling children to be truly fit and healthy seems to have been dropped from the political lexicon.

There is growing consensus around the fact that patterns established in early childhood can affect the life course for good or ill; agreement that hours spent in front of a screen will not foster a healthy lifestyle and as we approach a General Election, politicians are demanding a renewed focus on sport and ‘physical exercise’ Yet the activity that children most enjoy; the one best qualified to develop strength of character as well as bodily fitness is missing. Adults ‘exercise’ but children play. In our report ‘The Early Years’ (February 2015), the All Party Parliamentary Group on A Fit and Healthy Childhood contends that play is an integral component of child health and wellbeing. It is a loadstone for policy - makers and it should start early.

If children are to benefit from freely-chosen play, their educators must be educated. Fruitful play is not the sole provision of a time-slot for children to ‘go outside’ because much of this time may be sedentary. The key posts of Early Years Educator and Early Years Teacher should incorporate play work as an essential component of foundation training and a standard for playtime during the early years setting and school day must be set and built into the educational inspection process. Playground design need not be expensive nor space - extensive, but staff must be trained in how to facilitate, monitor and observe child-led play and test levels of activity and physical literacy. Quality play standards should be included in national minimum standards for all childcare settings and EU indices of child health and wellbeing used as statutory performance measures of children’s play.

This strategy should be complemented by action in the community to improve street design, develop green spaces and open up natural ‘playable places’ for children to run, climb, get muddy, paddle and swing. Children should be able to access play facilities in their local communities that offer a wide range of activities for all ages and abilities. Natural play spaces are important but the provision of well-designed; high-quality play equipment can be part of the solution too. This will require an imaginative use of public space and revision of the planning process to include
land-use guidelines compatible with the needs of children to enjoy freely-chosen play.

What is essential is the political will to make change happen. The incoming Government should revise the 2008 National Play Strategy with a two decade roll-out and make proposals for the delivery of play in early year’s settings, schools and public spaces. Such action will not bankrupt the Exchequer, but will reap financial dividends to the Health Service throughout the life course. It will also be a huge public commitment to equality. Not every child can excel at sport but every child can derive health and wellbeing from playful activity of their own choosing.

It is the legacy that they deserve – and one that they, in turn, will pass down to their own children. The Government that encourages play will enable a society that is fit, healthy and ultimately productive.

By Helen Clark: All PartyParliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood 

The Association of Play Industries is a proud supporter and member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Fit and Healthy Childhood. 

Date: 09 March 2015