Giving children the space to play

Mark Hardy, chair of the Association of Play Industries, suggests a change to procurement practices could help local authorities to solve some of the issues affecting local play facilities.

The UK is in the grip of a catastrophic physical inactivity and obesity epidemic. There has never been a more important time for children to be physically active, yet opportunities for them to play outdoors are under threat. Evidence shows that adopting an active lifestyle early in life encourages healthy habits in adulthood. This means providing children with the time, space and facilities to enable that natural energy.

Evidence shows that play provides children of all abilities with a wealth of development, health and wellbeing benefits. It also shows that the benefits of community play facilities reach beyond children’s lives, delivering positive civil, social and economic impacts too. According to article 31 of the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child, every child has a fundamental right to play - yet there are many local communities for whom that right is under threat. Not every child has access to a garden, park or safe outdoor space where they can play, so high-quality public play facilities are vitally important. Local authorities have traditionally been the biggest providers of play facilities for communities, but austerity pressures and dwindling budgets are taking their toll on children’s play facilities.

A Freedom of Information investigation by Children and Young People Now magazine in 2013 found that 31 per cent of local authorities closed playgrounds between 2010 and 2013, and that spending on play fell by 38.8 per cent during the same period (£67.9 million in 2010/11 vs £41.5 million in 2013/14).

The Association of Play Industries (API) campaigns at the highest levels for policy recognition of the value of active play and is increasingly concerned about the decline in public play provision, particularly in disadvantaged communities. In 2015, the API put public play facilities under scrutiny with a campaign called #nowhere2play, in which parents and carers across the UK were asked to share their views about public play provision.

The findings showed that over half (56 per cent) of parents are unhappy about the lack of high quality play facilities in their local area. Nearly a quarter (23.4 per cent) said their nearest playground is in a poor state and 22.9 per cent said their children rarely or never play there. Over half (52.4 per cent) said they see no improvement in local play facilities and 15.1 per cent said they’re getting worse. Nearly four in ten (38.1 per cent) said they are worried that playgrounds in their local community may close down altogether.

Like the API, they want the government to take action. Eight in ten families responding agree there should be funding for more high quality public play facilities (82.4 per cent) and investment in parks and green spaces for public recreation (81.1 per cent). Over one third (39.8 per cent) think that disadvantaged communities should be the focus of funding for playground improvements.

Parents and families’ observations and concerns about local play facilities are a real wake-up call. 98.5 per cent think it’s important that their children are physically active but this research shows that many simply have nowhere safe to play. We’re particularly concerned that so many families (14.5 per cent) said their nearest playground is derelict, unusable or unsafe. The strength of feeling that government should be making children’s play a priority is clear.

The API is collating an online gallery of declining public play provision and is urging families to share images of disused, abandoned or neglected local play facilities on social media using the campaign hashtag #nowhere2play.

In Autumn 2015, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for A Fit and Healthy Childhood, co-chaired by Baroness Floella Benjamin, launched its report and recommendations on play, urging the government to put a national strategy for play at the heart of government policy on child health and wellbeing.

We are an active founding member of this group and believe that if we are serious about tackling the root causes of the physical inactivity and child obesity epidemics, then children in every local community should be able to access well-designed, high-quality, free-to-use public play facilities. The relatively low capital cost required would deliver wide-ranging value. With the launch of the national obesity framework early in 2016, we believe it’s time for the government to move play up the political agenda and adopt a national strategy for play.

Embed physical inactivity into everyday life
We were extremely encouraged to see the government’s new Sporting Future sport strategy recommend the co-location of physical activity facilities with other public services such as libraries and GP surgeries. This provides a great opportunity for local authorities to support the embedding of physical activity into everyday life.

Overhaul procurement practice
Procurement is an area that needs a radical shake-up within local authorities. Our member companies bid for hundreds of local authority play contracts every year and are spending increasingly more time on long, drawn-out tenders that aren’t fit for purpose. Play spaces and playgrounds aren’t commodities like paper clips. They’re designed by experts and should be tailored according to the needs of the local communities they serve and the outcomes they deliver to children. Yet time after time, play equipment procurement is becoming a seemingly automated process, managed by individuals with no knowledge or expertise in play, with the process reduced to over-simplistic box‑ticking. Tighter, more streamlined practices led by child development experts would reduce costs for local authorities and would deliver better outcomes for communities.

It is common for local authorities to invite large numbers of contractors to bid to supply play equipment, but this practice simply doesn’t provide value for money. The resources used by contractors on these processes would be better spent developing the next generation of innovative play equipment, particularly at a time when barriers to active play are rising. We recommend that a limited number of pre-selected tender companies take part so that those participating can focus fully on delivering the best solution possible with genuine value for money built in.

This flawed procurement culture actually devalues play by encouraging less reputable companies to take part. While products on a drawing can look alike, cut-price operators cut corners on quality, standards, materials and safety to deliver cheaper deals. The rationale for the original tender – the provision of high quality play spaces that meet local need – is then obscured.

We believe playground procurement tenders should be limited to three bidders, that API membership be mandatory to ensure only reputable, financially stable companies compete, and that four key questions be asked: how will the design impact the specific needs of the community it serves?; what positive outcomes will it deliver for children?; what specific expertise and value can the contractor offer?; and will the playground delivered match the drawings presented?

Consultation with local people and families that use play facilities is also an important – but increasingly rare – factor when local authorities are planning new play projects, in order to establish the kind of facilities a local community might need and want. API member companies have strong experience and expertise in planning and running stakeholder consultations.

Increase in outdoor fitness equipment
While local authority contracts to refurbish rather than replace older play equipment are more common currently, one area where API members are seeing a marked increase in enquiries is in adult outdoor fitness equipment. This growth market is proving extremely popular and provides free-to-use gym-style equipment in parks and recreation spaces for strength, conditioning and cardiovascular exercise. This type of equipment is only suitable for people aged 14 and over.

Local authorities, town and parish councils have an important contribution to make in providing much-needed play facilities, and many work in partnership with the Association of Play Industries.

As the UK’s leading experts in play provision, API members design, create and install high‑quality play equipment using certificated products, and provide advice on inspection, maintenance and repair. They operate to the highest standards, abide by a strict Professional Code of Conduct, comply with relevant safety standards, and are rigorously and regularly monitored and credit‑checked for financial security and stability.

From sensory spaces for toddlers and inclusive play spaces for children of all abilities to skate parks and social spaces for teenagers, today’s play spaces are engaging, flexible, multi-use areas with fun, stimulating equipment that appeals to children of all ages and abilities. Adding a well-designed, well-maintained play area with high quality equipment and strong play value provides immeasurable benefits to local families. Using an API member reassures play buyers they are working with a reputable, reliable and financially stable company with experience and expertise.

To find out more about the API, our members and campaigning work, you’ll find useful information, resources, advice and details on the API website. If you’re planning a new play project and want to know why it pays to use an API member, our ‘At a Glance’ guide will give you peace of mind. You’ll also find breaking news from the industry and the latest reports from like-minded organisations.

For more information about the API, please contact: Deborah Holt, association manager, tel: 024 76 847218, email or follow @apiplay on Twitter.

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