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These 10 policy steps could give children back the freedom to play

5 Oct

Public anxiety about children’s excessive use of digital media and computer games has reignited the debate about ‘battery-reared’ children. Adrian Voce argues that the retreat from real-world, outdoor play began before the ubiquity of tablets, smartphones and social media. Policymakers should be focussing on how the built environment and public space responds to children’s need to play.

Eight years after the abandonment of a national play strategy for England, children’s play has again come under the spotlight. Commentators and public figures, including Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, and Health Select Committee chairperson, Sarah Wollaston MP, have commented on the phenomenon of “battery-reared” children and how this may be connected to the childhood obesity epidemic and the rising incidence of poor mental health in young people.

Such commentary reflects a growing public anxiety that sedentary, screen-based entertainments have come to replace real-world play as the predominant leisure activity for children. Others fear that social media has become more significant to many young people’s friendship groups than spending physical time together.

While such anxieties may or may not be justified in themselves, the decline in children’s outdoor play began long before the digital revolution; its causes lie more with changes to the built environment and public space than in the screens children turn to when they are denied access to it.

“The decline in children’s outdoor play began long before the digital revolution”

Children need no reason to play; it is simply how they enjoy being alive and express who they are. Scientifically, though, there are very good reasons for it.

Playing promotes positive feelings and is crucial to children’s resilience and emotional development. Because they are in control, it enables children to learn how to navigate the world, encounter and manage risk, be adaptable and resourceful, make choices and build relationships. Play is a key to attachment, creativity, motivation and self-confidence. The fact that it also involves more physical activity than most sports is incidental.

Most parents know that children need a good amount of space to play, and the freedom to enjoy it; that a child playing in the right outdoor environment is a child fulfilled. Parents don’t need public health data to tell them that after playing out with their friends, children come home exercised and contented, ready for a healthy meal and a good night’s sleep.

“Parents are increasingly reluctant to let children play out unsupervised”

Nevertheless, parents are increasingly reluctant to let children play out unsupervised. The challenge, then, is to understand why, and to address these barriers and concerns. Solutions should be bespoke to each community, but there are some common themes and principles. Here, not as an exhaustive list, are ten suggestions for play policy.

1) Stop blaming parents

Parents’ permission is key, but changes in parenting practices alone can’t account for the decline in play opportunities. Whatever else we want for our kids, we firstly need them to be safe from serious harm. With road traffic accidents still a major cause of death to young people, and rising levels of air pollution and violent crime, the reluctance to let children outside unaccompanied isn’t simply paranoid parenting.

It is up to public policy to reassure parents that their children will be safe outside. Then there is the disproportionate emphasis on formal education, exams and structured “enrichment activity”. It is small wonder if many parents have forgotten that not everything a child needs to learn can be “delivered”.

2) End the domination of traffic

Pedestrianised areas, home zones and play streets should be the norm for urban communities. Where this is not deemed possible, the 20mph speed limit, while helping to reduce road traffic fatalities, is still too fast for children to play outside. For residential streets this should be reduced to 10 mph or less, with more shared space to remove the default right of way for vehicles.

3) Support and promote street play

Redesigning streets will take many years and significant capital investment to implement to scale, but temporary street closures are an affordable short-term measure  — closing off roads to traffic and encouraging children to make use of local space. Local authorities should designate named officers to provide such support and work with community groups and parent volunteers to grow the number and frequency of regular street play days. The UK’s Playing Out network demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach, but it will take public policy to scale it up.

4) Design for play

The play sufficiency principle pioneered in Wales should be embedded into the planning and design principles for public space, housing and the wider built environment. Recent research by ZCD architects, including the Mayor of London’s design advocate Dinah Bornat (also a Playing Out volunteer) shows how. Policymakers and planners in London and beyond should be studying her report.

5) Integrate playable space throughout the public realm

Space to play should not be defined by fences, safety surfaces and standardised equipment, but integrated throughout a liveable, intergenerational landscape that includes unplanned space that children can populate and animate with their play. Valuing and responding to children’s play in the conception and design of public space is vital — including supporting their participation in such projects wherever possible.

6) Build adventure playgrounds

In dense urban environments, traditional adventure playgrounds are a tried-and-tested solution. They should be bespoke to each community and staffed by qualified playworkers with their uniquely child-centred and permissive approach. Such spaces have evolved over several decades in some of the world’s busiest cities to become recognised by many researchers as the ideal form of dedicated play space, but they are under threat from short-termism and austerity; their numbers have been in decline since the crash. Enlightened policy would protect those that remain and set out a program to enable more to be built.

7) Ensure daycare is good for children, not just parents and employers

For many children in the modern world, traditional play time — after school and in the holidays — is spent in day care. Until deregulation by the Coalition government, these services were run by qualified playworkers and had to include playable outdoor space. Creating child-friendly neighbourhood space will do little for the children who spend up to eight hours a day in childcare, but reintroducing appropriate standards and a qualified workforce to after-school and holiday services would provide them with the play opportunities they need.

8) Open up school grounds for neighbourhood play

Schools are by far the greatest recipient of public funding for children and yet are massively under-utilised as community assets, being gated and out-of-bounds for all who do not attend, even when school is out. School grounds, if not school buildings, should be made available as playable community spaces, especially in neighbourhoods with limited access to green or open space.

9) Develop safe routes to schools, parks and play areas.

Mobility is vital: child-friendly, “playable” neighbourhoods have safe, accessible and familiar routes to give children the connectivity that adults take for granted. More cycle lanes, footbridges, subways and off-road footpaths joining children’s homes to suitable spaces are a start. Animating those spaces with playable designs, community art and landscape features would transform most neighbourhoods for children.

10) Adopt a national strategy for play, and make local responses a statutory duty

Many of the suggestions I have outlined are within the remit of local government, but others are dependent on national policy too. Education, planning, public health, law-and-order and transport each have a bearing on decisions that can either constrain or enable children’s play opportunities. The final suggestion then is that a cabinet minister — perhaps a secretary of state for children — must be given overall responsibility for strategic, cross-cutting play policy, to lead and coordinate cohesive changes across each relevant sector, and at all levels and in each respective department of government. This should include legislation similar to the Welsh play sufficiency duty. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013) has made clear that children’s right to play is a responsibility of government under article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, requiring legislation, planning and funding as necessary. The time is ripe for the UK government to take that responsibility seriously.

The Mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa famously said, “if a city is good for children, it will be good for everybody else”. The child-friendly city begins on every child’s doorstep. The policy challenge is making it easier for children to cross that threshold and go out to play.

Adrian Voce

An edited version of this article was first published by apolitical.co

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