In carrying out the research for the API’s Equal Play campaign, we were initially delighted. Our latest Freedom of Information survey of Local Authorities revealed that the year-on-year reduction in public playground provision had bottomed out and that play provision was no longer in decline.
But then we looked more closely and realised that the data exposed a deeply unfair and unequal picture. UK play provision is a “postcode lottery”: some areas have up to five times the play provision of others. With some regions well-served and others severely lacking, it seems that the opportunities that children have to play outdoors are largely left to chance.
For children, play is as basic a need as sleep, a nutritious diet, supportive care, education and interaction. Without any one of these things a child’s normal development will be impeded physically, mentally and emotionally. We wouldn’t dream of leaving a child’s schooling or housing to mere chance, but we do precisely this for outdoor play.
The problem lies in the assumption that outdoor play is a nice-to-have, an ‘extra’, rather than an essential component of childhood. The truth is that without free-to-access outdoor play, children are driven inside onto their screens, alone and inactive. Without outdoor play, children are denied crucial aspects of their development where they learn about relationships, resilience, compromise, self-reliance, problem-solving and risk taking. They will not build muscle, develop essential motor and coordination skills or know the joy of physical activity. They will not learn how to stave off boredom using their own ingenuity and will default back to their screens. They will not burn enough calories to stay at a healthy weight.
We really are setting our children up to fail. Never before has a generation moved so little and been so unhappy and unhealthy. The maddening fact is, that given half a chance children would be out playing just as much as previous generations. Research shows that public playgrounds are the number one location for outdoor play – in other words, if they’re there, children use them. But a dearth of quality, local, ‘doorstep’ playgrounds, the lure of technology and an environment perceived as largely hostile to children’s outdoor play is driving them indoors in their droves.
The Equal Play campaign is urging the government to consider a very simple public health measure: provide funding for enough high-quality, appealing, challenging playgrounds – close to children’s homes – so that every child goes out to play every day. For a modest investment in government terms, the behaviour of UK children would change course in a very ordinary but hugely effective way. Every child would move more, interact more, play more and lives would be transformed.
More information about the #EqualPlay campaign can be found HERE .