Lack Of Outdoor Play Spaces For Children Over Last 40 Years ‘Highly Regrettable’

Posted by in Blog on March 13, 2013 0 comments

From | By Richard Howard, News Editor

Child independence is increasingly becoming a forgotten freedom, warn Love Outdoor Play campaigners.

Responding to research published by the University of Westminster, the campaign wants to see the steady decline of children’s independence over the last 40 years become a more prominent issue, calling upon local authorities in particular as the key players in producing more accessible outdoor spaces.

Comparing data gathered from 1971, 1990 and 2010, the university’s Policy Studies Institute (PSI) found that only 25 per cent of children are now allowed by their parents to travel home from school alone – a figure that stood at 86 per cent in 1971.

PSI research fellow Ben Watson believes the results prove that UK children have a disadvantaged upbringing, compared to those from other Western countries, as a result of this trend.

He comments: “Independent mobility has been shown to be good for children’s well-being and development, yet our research shows it has dropped significantly in the last four decades. The experience from Germany shows that this drop is not an inevitable result of modern life. If we care about the future health of our children, action should be taken to enable them to regain the right to a safe outdoor environment without the need for adult supervision.”

The Love Outdoor Play campaign wants to see immediate action from local authorities, challenging councils to find more play spaces by 2014 and seeing the loss of independence as impacting negatively on physical health due to a lack of leisure and recreational activities.

Cath Prisk, director of Play England, who launched the campaign, comments: “This study confirms our own research that there are more barriers to playing out and travelling independently for children today than for previous generations.

“Parents who want to buck this worrying trend should think about giving their kids the gift of independence at home, on the doorstep, in their neighbourhood and further afield. Play England wants to see communities take control of their own neighbourhoods to ensure that children can play out like they used to. If we want our children and young people to have independence, resilience and everyday adventures they need to start young – it is everyone’s responsibility to make this happen.”

Although the challenge is set out for local authorities and communities, early years providers themselves can get children off to a good start by pursuing a curriculum that targets the benefits of outdoor play and learning.

Such initiatives were the motivation for settings like that of Berkhampstead Day Nursery, in Cheltenham, which opened in April last year in premises chosen specifically for the benefits of outdoor access. Marketing head Angela Cross comments: “Being outside is a real priority for us, we know the benefits that all children gain from fresh air, so from the very youngest age, we make sure that there’s opportunity to get outdoors each day – wellies or suncream being applied as needed.”

She continues: “A real priority for us has been to develop the outdoor space and to establish a Forest School area. Logs and tree trunks are currently being moved into place – the grass is wild – staff and children are raring to go and discover the delights of grubs and bugs, campfires and confidence-building activities. Part of Berkhampstead School, where a ‘can-do’ attitude is key, our little ones are starting young and honing their skills in the outdoor environment, doing real things, learning and getting dirty while they are about it!”

Beyond the Walls Outdoor Nursery children, Tockholes, Lancashire

The childcare sector is also seeing the first completely outdoor nurseries opened in recent years, based on similar models in Germany and Scandinavia. Only a handful exist so far, however, one of which is Beyond the Walls Outdoor Nursery, in Lancashire, where children spend all their time immersed in woodland-based activities rather than incorporating computers and plastic toys.

Lead practitioner Naomi Suggett describes some of the activities: “We set up camp and explain the boundaries to the children. We have an ocarina, a flute-like instrument, so if the children are playing hide and seek for example, they will know to come if we use the ocarina as we want the children to have a bit of freedom. We do have a whistle to blow if we think there is any danger.

“There are rope swings, trees to climb and streams where they can go fishing with nets. We do have activities for them to do but mostly we like them to lead their own play and use their imagination. They will do things like sit on a branch and pretend it’s a motorbike.

“Through the changing of the seasons we embrace each new challenge with a determination to fully and wholeheartedly take advantage of all that nature provides; in spring, the fascination of a spider web wet with dew, sun breaking through the canopy of the trees in summer, the crunch of fallen golden autumnal leaves and the enchanting beauty of a cold crisp winter’s day, hunting for hidden treasure.”

Sustrans is another campaigning group that want to see more community freedom for children, with plans to launch a ‘Free Range Kids’ campaign once the movement has enough support from MPs.

Chief executive Malcolm Shepherd sees restoring parents’ faith in their communities as the crucial factor, saying: “It’s a tragedy that so many of our children are failing to meet recommended physical activity levels but little wonder when parents don’t feel that their local streets are safe.

“We urgently need to make our communities safer if we’re to get kids active by walking and cycling to school and playing outdoors. Parents want to see safer streets – the Government must change the standard speed limit to 20mph on the streets where we live, work and play.”

Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, agrees, saying: “We know that children aren’t getting active enough. This can directly affect their health – increasing their risk of developing long term conditions such as cardiovascular disease. “It should be as easy as possible for everyone to get active as part of their everyday life. Walking or cycling to school is a simple way for children to fit activity into their daily lives.

“But for people to feel confident to do this, we need towns and cities which encourage people to have an active lifestyle. Steps like reducing the speed limit in residential areas are one of the ways we can help create environments which inspire people to be more active.”

The issue of child access to outdoor play was even raised by a recent United Nations Committee. After observing that very few national reports on the Rights of the Child focused on physical activity, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child called upon member governments to, “respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.”

Health minister at the Welsh Assembly, Lesley Griffiths, is eager to see Wales play its part in bucking this trend and also puts pressure on local councils to recognise the need for prioritising this issue.

The minister comments: “The right for children to experience the freedom and enjoyment of play and recreational activities is of paramount importance to the Welsh Government. Recently we commenced the duty on our local authorities to assess the sufficiency of play opportunities in their local area. This is the first step in ensuring we have places which are safe and freely available for children to play both now and in years to come.”

Mike Greenaway, director of Play Wales, is delighted to see this Government commitment though feels that Wales is already setting an example on children’s rights.

He comments: “Wales is already taking a lead by legislating for children’s rights through the Rights of Children and Young Person’s (Wales) Measure 2011 which places a duty on Welsh Ministers to consider the rights of children when making policy and legislation decisions.”

Conwy County Borough Council is one authority which has sought to address this gap in the lives of modern children, implementing a ‘Play Strategy’ aimed specifically at breaking down these barriers to child freedom.

Council leader and Conwy’s lead member for children, Dilwyn Roberts, describes some of the work undertaken.

He says: “The Playing Out project targets thirty communities across the county borough with a team of playworkers who operate from parks and open spaces to encourage children to make use of the outdoor environment for play.

“The playworkers have a van full of (mostly scrap) resources, so that children can build and create their own games, dens and rope swings. Mess and mud is the order of the day as children follow their own ideas for their own reasons. They are supported by the playworkers who are on hand to help if needed but are trained not to take an overly directive role so that play can continue unhindered by adults.

“Very often our playworkers find themselves talking to other adults in the community and helping to address one of the other barriers to play; adult attitudes. We have found that a little bit of misty-eyed reminiscing of childhood ‘mischief’ is often enough to remind adults that children playing outside in their community is a good thing in a world where, all too often, the young generation are demonised.”

Mayer Hillman, senior fellow emeritus at the PSI, laments the fact that so few similar drives can be found throughout the UK, saying: “It is highly regrettable that so little attention has been paid to the damage caused by this erosion of children’s freedoms and decline in their quality of life. Far more effort needs to be invested in reversing the process that has had such an unfortunate outcome.”