Urgent call to put play at the heart of children’s health

Last week, the Children’s Commissioner for England followed up her calls for an end to the ‘battery hen existence’ children experience throughout the summer holidays with her report Playing Out – a timely call to reinstate the importance to children of play and physical activity before it is too late.

Many children it seems are spending the summer alone, sedentary, indoors and tied to technology instead of enjoying the kind of fun, sociable and free-roaming outdoor play taken for granted by previous generations.

Mark Hardy, Chairman of the Association of Play Industries (API), whose members provide quality playgrounds and spaces, said: “We all know anecdotally and from direct experience of how our own children and grandchildren spend their time, that there has been a seismic shift in the behaviours of children now compared to previous generations.

“We have transitioned from seeing children playing out without adult supervision as the norm, to it now potentially being a cause for alarm. Parents are reluctant to allow their children out alone because of fears around ‘stranger danger’, crime and the dangers posed by traffic. And yet, the irony is that in trying to keep children safe, we are in fact normalising a toxic lifestyle.”

The Playing Out report identifies the three barriers to children playing out as an over-dependence on technology, parents’ reluctance to allow children out and a lack of free, high-quality play spaces and provision.

“Our own Nowhere ToPlay research highlighted an alarming decline in playground provision in England,” says Mark. “Hundreds of playgrounds have been closed or are set to close. Between 2014/15 and 2015/16 local authorities across England closed 214 children’s playgrounds, and when asked about future plans they admitted their aim to close a further 234.

“We are currently investigating the situation since our initial report and anticipate a further reduction in places where children are stimulated to play and can do so safely. Children have to want to visit these spaces and parents and carers have to feel reassured of their quality and safety.”

Mark Kirkup is the CEO of the Federation of Sports and Play Associations; the umbrella body supporting the sports and play industries and of which the API is a member. “Physical activity in all its forms is crucial in tackling the obesity crisis and for children, play is absolutely fundamental.

“We’re selling a generation short unless we face the fact that children are overly dependent on technology to fill their leisure time and that increasingly they have nowhere locally to play. We welcome the Commissioner’s calls to place activity at the heart of the government’s strategy against obesity.

“We are also highlighting the importance of physical activity and play in children’s mental health. Not only is play vital to healthy physical development, it has a central role in children’s emotional, psychological and cognitive development too. Through play children learn to take risks, compete, negotiate, cooperate and manage conflict. Play is how children learn.

“What is vital is to listen to children themselves. Technology and screens have their place in a healthy childhood, but never has it been more important to foster independence, a thirst for exploration and friendships. It is alarming to think what will happen if we don’t, and the key to all this is to promote and facilitate the joys of play, sport and activity.”

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