Play - more than swings and roundabouts

Play is a subject that families feel passionately about, but the recent State of UK Public Parks 2016 report highlighted dramatic cuts to revenue budgets. Deborah Holt, association manager for the Association of Play Industries, reports on the importance of play

Ask local communities in any part of the UK what they want for families living there and you can be certain that safe places for children to play will be high on their list of priorities. Flick through local newspapers, visit local MPs’ constituency surgeries or click on popular crowdfunding websites and you’ll find passionate groups of people campaigning to ‘save our playground’ from threat of closure.

Play is a subject that families feel passionately about – and rightly so. Having somewhere safe for children to run, jump and let off steam is vitally important. It’s not just about having fun - there is plentiful academic evidence to show that play delivers physical, developmental, emotional, behavioural, social and environmental benefits to children of all abilities. In short, every child learns through play.

Of course not every child has access to a garden or suitable outdoor space to play, which is why public play facilities – often located within local parks - make a vital contribution to civic life. Wider society benefits too. The best outdoor spaces reflect the needs and demography of the local community, and incorporate multi-generational facilities for play and physical activity, such as walking trails, trim trails, outdoor fitness equipment and landscape features. This kind of holistic, inclusive provision encourages the inactive to be active, enhances community cohesion and supports the local economy.

Cuts are hitting parks and play
However, the reality is that local authority budget cuts are biting hard. Without doubt, community play facilities are feeling the pinch, with 78 per cent of local authorities surveyed for the Heritage Lottery Fund State of UK Public Parks 2016 report agreeing that the squeeze on public sector resources is affecting parks and green spaces disproportionately to other service areas. Additionally, 92 per cent of park managers reported cuts to their revenue budgets in the last three years, and only half (53 per cent) said their parks were in good condition. 59 per cent of local authorities reported that they were considering either selling parks and green spaces or transferring their management to others in the next three years, and less than half (48 per cent) said they have a parks strategy in place.

Inevitably, this means many playgrounds are closing or being threatened with closure, while others are poorly repaired and maintained. Children soon lose interest in poor quality, neglected equipment which means families stop visiting. This can leave play areas abandoned to decline and, sadly, prey to vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

Put simply, children’s fundamental right to play – as enshrined in the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child and ratified by the government – is under threat. The passionate protests by local communities and evidenced benefits of play to child development are simply not being heard by policy makers. The last major investment in public play provision was halted by the coalition government, and England is the only UK nation with no national strategy for play.

Child health and well-being
We are in the midst of a child health and well-being crisis. Obesity and inactivity are rising and young people’s relationship with the outdoors is dwindling. Despite children’s abundance of natural energy, it is adults that are stopping them from being as active as possible. Evidence shows that adopting an active lifestyle early in life encourages healthy habits in adulthood, which means providing children with the time, space and facilities to enable that natural energy.

Children are more physically active if they have access to high-quality outdoor play facilities. Well-designed play spaces act as a ‘signpost’ for children to access the outdoor world, and public parks should be hubs for physical activity for people of all ages. Investment in, and subsequent maintenance of, public play facilities should be a local authority – and central government - priority, particularly in deprived communities. If there is nowhere to play, where can children go to be physically active when they are not at school?

Public parks inqiury
The recent Communities and Local Government Public Parks inquiry asked why parks matter, what challenges the parks sector faces and how their sustainable future can be secured. Hundreds of campaigning and other organisations from across the country, including the API, gave written and oral evidence in support of parks. As the report stated: “The level of response has clearly demonstrated the strength of feeling people have for their local parks and green spaces, and how much parks are valued by individuals, families and communities.”

The Committee acknowledged the contribution of public parks as ‘treasured national assets’, ‘central to the lives of communities’ and ‘fundamental to community cohesion, physical and mental health and well-being, biodiversity, climate change mitigation, and local economic growth’. It also noted that: “Distribution of parks is unequal across the country, with many deprived communities struggling to access the benefits which green spaces can provide.”

However, the committee rejected the many calls for a statutory duty on local authorities to provide and maintain parks. It recommended instead the publication of government guidance to local authorities on working collaboratively with Health and Wellbeing Boards to produce and publish joint parks and green space strategies.

The API welcomes the committee’s honesty in acknowledging that parks are at a tipping point due to lack of funding and investment, and hopes this important report will see government re-prioritise the crucial role that parks and green spaces play. As advocates for the importance of play to child development, health and well-being, parks have a pivotal role in combating children’s sedentary lifestyles. Investment in parks and public play facilities should be a local authority priority, particularly for deprived communities, where obesity rates are highest.

With pressures on land for housing and commercial development, it is essential that local authorities are supported in protecting and prioritising their green spaces. This will help alleviate wider societal problems such as social exclusion, mental health and anti-social behaviour. Parks are treasured community assets, worthy of protection, and should be well-represented in the government’s 25-year Environment Plan as well as other policy areas.

Here to help
The API has much to offer local authorities and, specifically, those officers responsible for taking the government’s planned guidance on parks and green spaces and applying it to their own local health and wellbeing strategies. For too long, play facilities and equipment have been procured in the same way as paper clips or other commodities. This practice does local communities a disservice and should stop.

Public play provision should be planned and designed with experts on a case by case basis, with local objectives, need and demographics at the heart. Play facilities have come a long way in the last fifty years. Today’s design options are endless – from sensory spaces and splash parks to skate parks, Parkour and BMX trails, inclusive equipment for children of all abilities to outdoor gyms, multi-games and -sports areas

The UK play industry is committed to providing real solutions to tackle the growing obesity and inactivity epidemic amongst children, particularly in disadvantaged communities where the problem is most prevalent. It’s in everyone’s interests that children move more, more often – but they can’t do this without somewhere to play. That place is in a well-designed, high quality play area close to where they live and local authorities hold the key.

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