This opinion piece was written by Anne Longfield OBE, who was appointed the Children’s Commissioner for England in 2015. Her role is to bring about long term change and improvements for all children — in particular the most vulnerable children in care.
I published a report recently looking at why children growing up in England today are playing out less than they did in the past, and proposing some solutions for encouraging children to become more active.
The need is becoming urgent — children are spending two or three hours online every day, but only four hours a week playing out. The result is a generation that is the least active ever. Only one in four boys and one in five girls in England do the recommended 60 minutes of activity each day.
“Only one in four boys and one in five girls in England do the recommended 60 minutes of activity each day”
Part of this is down to the shrinking nature of where we feel our children are safe. The area around the home where children used to play has shrunk by 90% since the 1970s. Busy lives, busy roads, fewer communal spaces — all of these things are making activity something that needs to be planned, scheduled, supervised and often paid for.
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Yet we know that whether it is going down to the park with friends or family, playing in a sports team or attending a holiday club, physical activity delivers important benefits to children and young people. It improves mental health and wellbeing: children who play are happier, more confident, form healthier attachments and are better at dealing with stress. It is good for physical health, supporting children’s physiological, cardiovascular and motor skills development, and helping them to maintain a healthy weight. Play also fuels children’s imagination, creativity and expression.
“Children who play are happier, more confident and better at dealing with stress”
So how do we encourage more children to play out? Firstly, government needs to recognise the importance of play and activity for children’s physical and mental health. That means putting out-of-school activity at the heart of its plans to reduce obesity — not only focussing on nutrition, advertising and in-school physical activity.
Being active is just as important as diet when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, and the need to be active does not end at the school gates. The UK sugar tax levied for the first time in April is expected to raise £240m ($310m) per year, with the funds being used to improve school sports provision, playgrounds, kitchen and dining facilities. I want to see some of the proceeds going towards promoting play and activity outside of school, along with making healthy meals available to children during these times so that they have the energy and strength to take part.
Holiday and out-of-school clubs offer important physical health benefits, boost mental health and improve children’s social skills, while also providing childcare for parents. But these schemes are often expensive, and we have heard that getting financial help can be complicated. Governments should consider direct grants for holiday and out-of-school play schemes, to help the most disadvantaged parents get access to childcare.
“Politicians and policymakers also need to do more to champion play”
Politicians and policymakers also need to do more to champion play. Physical activity is hardly mentioned in the UK government’s green paper on children and young people’s mental health. It should be a priority. I also want to see the public-sector health organisations — namely NHS England and Public Health England — encouraging healthy habits early in life by funding activities to help pre-school children get active and stay active.
They need to help parents to understand the importance of play and activity by providing information and advice following the birth of their child. I would also like to see more areas encouraging doctors to recommend “play on prescription”.
Local councils should be thinking more about how to promote play, and working with local venues to maximise the use of existing facilities. They should identify places that close during the summer to be opened up for wider use — free or at minimum cost.
“The benefits of a long walk can be as important as what a child eats”
Play provision should be strategically planned as part of each area’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, which looks at the current and future health and care needs of local populations to inform and guide planning and commissioning of services. And councils should ensure that adequate space for children to play is factored into new residential developments. We need local authorities working with local communities to introduce street play days, particularly in disadvantaged areas.
There is a big role for parents too. The benefits of even simple activities like a long walk or playing in the park can be as important as what a child eats. We also need to show children that we, ourselves, can live without our devices. If a child sees a parent constantly attached to a smartphone, it’s hardly surprising if they think it is fine for them to do the same.
Childhoods have changed a lot over the last decade, as the digital world has become an ever more important part of children’s lives. Unless we start thinking creatively about how to make play a greater part of childhood, we risk seeing each new generation of children growing up glued to screens and less physically active. — Anne Longfield
(Picture credit: Pixabay)