Investment needed in public outdoor play provision

New research by the Association of Play Industries (API) shows that parents are increasingly concerned about the shift from outdoor play to indoor screen time. Mark Hardy, chair of the API, explores the effect the decline in public playgrounds is having on children

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. We are facing a shocking rise in childhood obesity and mental health problems in young people.

The API’s Nowhere To Play research in 2016 and again in 2018 showed an alarming decline in the number of public playgrounds in England. By 2020/21 there will have been a decrease in spend on play facilities of 44 per cent since 2017/18. Since 2014, local authorities have closed a total of 347 playgrounds across England.

A toxic cocktail
The dominance of digital culture has created a strong inducement for children to stay indoors, and, 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 toxic cocktail; children are being ‘pulled’ indoors by screens and ‘pushed’ away from outdoor play because of the decline in public playgrounds.

Our latest research shows that parents are worried about how their children are spending their leisure time. The API commissioned a survey of 1,111 parents through Mumsnet – the UK’s biggest website for parents. Parents with children aged between two and 12 were asked about their children’s screen time and outdoor play habits and the survey revealed that nine out of 10 parents who were not close to a playground said that having access would make their child play outside more.

Of those with access to a playground, 61 per cent said it does make their child play outside more and over half (53 per cent) of parents said more access to playgrounds would make their child more active. Almost half of them said that their child prefers screen time over other activities and said they find it difficult to persuade their child to leave their screen. Meanwhile, 69 per cent of parents of 10 to 12-year-olds said their children preferred screen time over other activities.

The impact on children’s mental and physical health
The survey also showed that parents are worried about the impact the lack of outdoor play having on their children’s mental and physical health. 72 per cent of parents of children with health issues such as obesity said that the lack of outdoor play facilities in their area has played a role in their children’s problems.

Over a quarter of parents surveyed with children experiencing mental health problems said that the lack of outdoor play facilities in their area has played a role in their children’s difficulties, and 26 per cent of parents with children who have sleep problems say that a lack of outdoor play facilities in their area has played a role in their children’s sleep difficulties.

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.

In one of the most densely populated, urbanised countries in Europe, with ever-shrinking opportunities for children to play outdoors, playgrounds play a crucial role in improving children’s movement levels and, in turn, their mental and physical 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.

Urban playgrounds are essential
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 playgrounds is not 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 four 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 per cent lower rate of ‘high psychosomatic symptoms.’ (Piccininni et al 2018).

Playgrounds – the only chance for play
As we lose community playground provision it is ever more incumbent on us all to halt the decline.  The majority of children live in urban areas and for these children playgrounds represent their only opportunity to play outdoors freely, frequently and safely. As schools squeeze break times and chances for outdoor play decline, public playgrounds are taking on an even greater significance.

The Play Must Stay campaign’s objective is clear – urgent and sustained investment from government to reverse the decline in outdoor play provision and secure its future for generations to come.  

Play Must Stay
As a resource to foster the positive physical and mental health of children – through movement and outdoor play – the role of playgrounds in the community should not be under-estimated. For a relatively modest investment now, the health and well-being of children would benefit greatly for years to come. The reality is that, in a heavily urbanised and digitally dominated society, public playgrounds really do matter and play must stay.

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