Sadly, I’ve also seen the effects that the demise of a loved playground can have on the people living around it. Children won’t spend their free time somewhere that doesn’t excite and inspire them to move and play. So they retreat indoors or ‘hang around’ with little to do.
This new research has uncovered a decline so steep in England’s play provision that none of us can afford to ignore it. Not just those in the play industry, but everyone – parents, families, communities, health professionals, educators – the list is endless. Because play is fundamental to children, essential to their emotional, social, cognitive and physical development.
Free play and activity is not a given for many, many children. Let’s not forget that we live in a country where space is at a premium and lots of children do not have gardens or outside space in which to move. Children’s access to play space is not equal; it’s the deprived areas that are hit the hardest by cuts in public play provision and the ones that will suffer the most.
And, of course, we now know that the obesity crisis among children though widespread, is much more prevalent in poorer areas. It seems counterintuitive, to say the least, for Government to prioritise tackling childhood obesity and yet take away the only chance for some children that they have for free play and movement.
We also know that there is a crisis among the mental health of UK children, with one-fifth experiencing mental illness. Once again, the benefits of physical activity and unstructured play in good quality, well-maintained and stimulating public playgrounds cannot be overlooked. More and more evidence is emerging about the positive association between physical activity, play and mental health.
I understand the current squeeze on public finances but in the long-term, cutting play provision will cost us more, contributing to the number of obese young people who are more likely to mature into obese adults. In addition, children who have nowhere to play will not develop the social and emotional skills needed for successful adult lives.
It’s a relatively small amount of money that is required to turn the situation around. But it’s clear that a modest investment now would generate a huge return. We have an opportunity now to impact the next generation’s lives in the most positive way and it’s one we must take.