Yesterday, Chris Leslie, MP for Nottingham East, drew fresh attention to an issue that many may be unaware of. The number of playgrounds in the UK is dwindling at an alarming rate and, if we’re not careful, these free, local and safe spaces for children to play in could be lost forever.
Mr Leslie called for urgent research into the state of UK playground provision and the link with childhood obesity and mental health problems. In a televised debate (starts at 11:00:49) in Westminster Hall, Mr Leslie outlined several requests for the Minister for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Rishi Sunak, to consider.
Alongside a well overdue investment of £100 million to reverse the downward trend in playgrounds found in the API’s Nowhere To Play report, Mr Leslie asked the Minister to prioritise play and playgrounds by commissioning research to drive public policy and to ensure that children’s voices are represented.
Playgrounds are integral to communities, so much so that over the years they have been taken for granted. That children have somewhere to play has been a given for as long as I can remember. Until now.
Across the UK, Local Authorities report that funding is so restricted they are having to make some very tough choices. Faced with maintaining schools, hospitals, social care and transport links on increasingly tight budgets, it’s parks, playgrounds and green spaces that are taking the hit.
But surely, as one of the richest countries in the world, we have the resources to provide children with somewhere to play. The rate at which we are losing playgrounds is shocking and very often, once a park or playground is closed it’s irreversible.
When did we start to consider the provision of play spaces a luxury rather than a necessity? I know first-hand the positive effect a stimulating and well-loved playground can have on a community and the gap that’s felt once it’s gone.
Play is essential to children’s social, physical, mental and emotional development. Unstructured outdoor play, away from close adult supervision is vital if we are to raise a generation of fit and well-adjusted young people.
One-fifth of children are suffering from mental health problems and children being overweight or obese is becoming the norm. Playgrounds aren’t a silver bullet in solving these problems, but they are an important contribution to the active and sociable childhood most of us enjoyed and which prevented these issues.
There was much to welcome in Mr Sunak’s response and the government’s recognition of the importance of exercise and activity in children’s lives. But, as Mr Leslie emphasised, play itself needs to be acknowledged, almost as a separate but related issue. If we don’t push play to the top of the political agenda – free, outdoor child’s play – it’s in danger of being replaced with highly organised sports and hobbies.
Schools and parents all have a role in ensuring children are active but it’s important we don’t organise activities too much. Children’s lives are already highly structured – they need time to just ‘be’ and, more often than not, if you allow children the chance to do this, they’ll play. It is through play that children learn about others, the world around them and about themselves. The least we can do is give them spaces to do just that.