Anyone who has ever been involved with a campaign of any kind will know that it’s often conducted on many levels. The recent spate of publicity for the Play Must Stay campaign in traditional and social media has been massively encouraging – we have clearly tapped into an issue that’s of great concern to parents and wider society. For those who are uneasy about rising levels of childhood obesity and poor mental health among children, the campaign to reverse the alarming decline in public, outdoor play spaces is a no-brainer.
However, there’s also a great deal of work going on behind the scenes to secure urgent and sustained government funding for community playgrounds. We’re winning the hearts and minds of many people who had perhaps taken playgrounds for granted – had thought they would be around forever – and are surprised to learn that that’s far from the case. But how do we then convert that groundswell of support into the real, tangible investment that’s so desperately needed?
At a political level there has been some progress, despite the potential spanner in the works that purdah currently represents. It’s certainly true that this sensitive, pre-election period has postponed some activity and slowed progress down to a plodding pace, but this is temporary and, after 12 December, we’ll simply pick up where we left off.
So, what has been happening at Westminster and beyond?
Due to the success of the Play Must Stay campaign, the API was invited to join the Child Mental Health Charter, an cross-party initiative by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit & Healthy Childhood to place the mental health of children at the heart of politics.
At a reception held recently in the Commons, Nadine Dorries MP, Minister for Mental Health, urged the Charter’s supporters to ‘make their voices heard’ at a forthcoming review of children’s mental health in January next year. This represents a significant opportunity for the API and its allies to pitch for investment in outdoor playgrounds as an important preventative measure against children’s mental ill-health.
At the end of October, the APPG on a Fit & Healthy Childhood also released its 14th report: Mental Health Through Movement, which says that ‘movement is the mainspring for children’s mental health’.
The API made significant contributions to the report, outlining how children are pulled indoors by the power of digital culture and pushed away from outdoor play due to severe cuts to playground provision and how this, in turn, adversely affects their mental (and physical) health.
I wrote to the Health Minister, Matt Hancock, before the election was called, requesting a meeting regarding the campaign. His response was a positive one in which he expressed his support for the need for this investment as part of the Health department’s ‘social prescribing agenda’.
Several of our members then secured meetings with their local MPs to ask them to lobby the Minister for investment in playgrounds and on 31 October we were successful in having an Early Day Motion tabled on children’s playgrounds. It says:
That this House expresses concern about the decline in the number of children’s playgrounds; notes that the latest figures suggest that around 450 playgrounds have been closed in England alone since 2015; believes that outdoor playtime for children is essential to their development and is important in promoting social cohesion and in combatting childhood obesity, mental health problems and excessive use of screens and social media; welcomes Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as initiatives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which recognise the right of every child to engage in play; further welcomes the Association of Play Industries Play Must Stay and Movement for Movement campaigns; and calls on the next Government to acknowledge the importance of outdoor play, to provide greater funding to create and maintain playgrounds and to appoint a Minister for Children and Young People, one of whose tasks should be to co-ordinate Policy in this area.
The next few weeks will be a kind of hiatus for the Play Must Stay campaign but it’s also an opportunity for us to prepare all we can in time for the next incoming government. After 12 December, MPs can again sign up to the EDM and there will be, I believe, renewed enthusiasm from across all parties to reverse childhood obesity and mental health problems in children before it’s too late. It’s our job to convince them of the crucial role that public playgrounds play in children’s health and to secure that all-important investment.