In the wake of some fantastic exposure for our latest campaign across the last few weeks, it is important that we keep momentum going. This is why Play Must Stay…
Today’s children are facing an entirely new childhood experience. Movement for many is minimal in comparison to previous generations, particularly free, unstructured outdoor play. Movement and play are essential for normal development and for children’s physical and mental health.
Children are hardwired to play. From their early years, they naturally gravitate towards movement, play, activity and fun. It is how children learn about themselves and the world around them. Without it they are missing something fundamental. However, the freedom of outdoor play is being replaced with sedentary, solitary and prolonged screen time.
The dominance of digital culture has created a strong inducement to stay indoors. At the same time there is a dramatic and sustained reduction in public outdoor play provision. As the overwhelming majority of UK children live in urban areas, this is a dangerous cocktail; children are being ‘pulled’ indoors by screens and ‘pushed’ away from outdoor play because of the decline in public playgrounds.
In one of the most densely populated, urbanised countries in Europe, with ever-shrinking opportunities for children to play outdoors, public playgrounds play a crucial role in improving children’s movement levels and, in turn, their physical and mental health. Playgrounds uniquely provide a safe, traffic-free environment in and around our towns and cities and for many children they represent their only chance for outdoor play.
Playgrounds have been an integral part of the childhood experience for generations and have perhaps been taken for granted. Increasingly however, playgrounds are being closed and more often than not, when a playground is lost it is lost forever. Unless there is urgent and sustained investment in public play provision, we are in danger of extinguishing one of the primary ways children can benefit from movement.
The provision of safe, accessible and stimulating community playgrounds isn’t a luxury; for millions of children they are essential to their current and future health. For policymakers, the funding of public playgrounds should be a priority because they are both prevention and cure; playgrounds fulfil a unique role in improving children’s movement, social interaction, fitness and physical and mental health.
There is a bank of research supporting not only the importance of outdoor play for health, but the central role playgrounds have in providing these opportunities. A recent European study of 4 to 12-year-olds concluded that physical and social environmental factors determine children’s physical activity and outdoor play hence ‘playgrounds are important requirements for being physically active.’
Playgrounds were also found to ‘constitute important settings for children to play, experience and interact with their social and physical environment, recognise and test their own abilities, and develop social, physical, and motoric skills.’ The researchers reinforced another aspect in that playgrounds ‘facilitate positive experiences’ such as fun, self-efficacy, social interaction, creativity, and physical ability and may contribute to ‘increased levels of energy expenditure in children…. In summary, playgrounds seem to be places for boys and girls to be physically active and to interact with other children … they could benefit with respect to their … health outcomes.’ (Reimers et al 2018).
A study on the link between outdoor play and ‘internalised mental health symptoms’ among 29,784 students aged 11–15 years, found that even spending (on average) more than 30 minutes a week outdoors was associated with a 24% lower rate of ‘high psychosomatic symptoms.’ (Piccininni et al 2018).
Even among senior school teenage girls, a study tracking the girls’ whereabouts with GPS monitoring and measuring their degree of physical activity, found that on days that they visited parks including playground areas, their level of MVPA was higher than on days when they did not visit parks. The researchers concluded ‘parks were an under-used resource for adolescent girls, particularly for MVPA.’ (Evenson et al 2018).
As a resource to foster the mental and physical health of children – through movement and outdoor play – the role of public playgrounds should not be under-estimated. For a relatively modest investment now the health of children could benefit greatly for years to come. Policy should reflect the reality which is that, in a heavily urbanised and digitally dominated society, public playgrounds really do matter and play must stay.