I ’ve worked extensively in Scandinavia and have seen first-hand that play is an integral part of society and the urban landscape. Sweden’s public realm is planned to be child-friendly. Multiple play facilities and spaces are planned throughout local communities, with children actively encouraged to roam and play. Here in the UK, planning policy restricts children’s play to specific areas, discouraging that same freedom of movement.
Malmo and Southampton are comparably sized cities. There are no prizes for guessing which city has five times as many play areas than the other, or which country has higher levels of child health and wellbeing. With a child obesity epidemic sweeping through UK society, I think it’s time to rethink how we plan public play provision.
Of course planning isn’t the only challenge. Data the API has gathered from a Freedom of Information request to English local authorities shows the scale of playground closures in recent years, with more to come. Budgets to replace, maintain and repair play equipment are dwindling, and in some cases, aren’t available at all. We hear that the effects of austerity measures are toughest for society’s most vulnerable – none more so than children. The removal of opportunities for them to play and be physically active – to be children – is scandalous.
We are at a tipping point as far as physical inactivity goes. Children are naturally hard-wired to play and be physically active, yet inactivity as a root cause of obesity is now an entrenched health crisis. Without tackling this significant issue from the ground up, we risk overburdening the NHS as it struggles to cope with the effects. Play has a vital contribution to make in getting children moving more.
According to the National Child Measurement Programme, obesity prevalence in the school year 2015/16 was more than twice as high in year six (19.8%) as in reception (9.3%). Obesity has increased since 2014/15 in both reception (9.1% in 14/15) and year six (19.1% in 2014/15), with over a fifth of children (22.1%) in reception and a third (34.2%) in year six now overweight or obese. Children living in the most deprived areas were twice as likely to be obese than those in the least deprived areas, and boys were more likely to be obese than girls.
Now is the time for those “bold, brave measures” promised – but sadly missing – from the Government’s obesity strategy. The Prime Minister said she would review the national obesity strategy if its measures weren’t effective. There isn’t a minute to lose. Local authority budgets are under pressure – parks are being sold off and playgrounds closed. Many children have nowhere to play. This is a national disgrace and contravenes their fundamental human rights.
Call for school PE shake-up:
•The Association of Play Industries (API) supports the call for a radical shake-up of physical activity in UK schools, made by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for a fit and healthy childhood.
•The API campaigns for policy recognition of the value of play, and lends particular support to the group’s recommendations that physical activity and play be funded and prioritised in equal measure to sport and PE within schools.
•API Chair, Mark Hardy, says: “The current School Sport & PE Premium is too narrow and should be evolved into a more impactful Physical Activity Premium. This would provide the financial support head teachers need to take a holistic approach. By embedding physical activity in every aspect of school culture, with teaching staff and senior management as role models, healthy habits and routines become the norm.”
•The APPG, which is co-chaired by Baroness Floella Benjamin, urges funding from the soft drinks levy for physical activity provision that extends beyond school hours, in order to counter periods of physical inactivity during school holidays. The API argues this step doesn’t go far enough.
Other recommendations made by the APPG include:
•A cross-department cabinet minister for children to drive child-focused policy
•A national PE taskforce to devise and implement a new PE curriculum, with a strong emphasis on personalisation
•Broader provision of physical activity for girls, specifically beyond the confines of competitive sport
• Improvements to training and CPD for teachers, playtime supervisors and the early years workforce
• Better opportunities for children with disabilities to be physically active
• Every school to appoint a dedicated team with responsibility for physical activity across every aspect of school life
• An overhaul of physical activity provision in early years settings, with new quality guidelines, a review of Ofsted inspection requirements and the appointment of a physical activity coordinator in every setting.