In this original article, one of the country’s leading experts in children’s outdoor play, Rob Wheway, criticises the UK Government for neglecting children’s development, suggesting that the Covid-19 restrictions further increase the damage to their physical and mental health.
The UK Government’s exclusive focus on school-based education, ignoring children’s out-of-school activity, is damaging. It wrongly assumes that school education is sufficient for children’s development. The idea of extending the school day in England confirms this bias.
This fixation on school-focused education, at the expense of a wider view of child development, is puzzling. Children have nearly as many days for play (175) as days for school (190) each year. Even on school days, they have hours for play after school. Covid restrictions have increased the hours but restricted the opportunities.
Clearly, time for play is a larger portion of children’s lives than school. It is also the opportunity for children to develop some of their abilities in ways that are much more effective than school-based education. The most obvious of these is exercise. When they can play out, children do get a lot of exercise. Some of this is fast, such as tag-type games; some is sporadic, such as hide-and-seek and riding scooters or bikes; ball games give co-ordination; imaginative play often involves running around in a magical world from which adults are excluded. Where children can play out in safety, e.g. in small cul-de-sacs, children as young as 4 learn to cycle on 2-wheeled bikes without stabilizers.
Achieved without adults
All this exercise is done willingly, for the fun of it, rather than to achieve tested stages. In all these ways, for long periods of time, children who can play out, get more exercise than they do at school. It is achieved without adults needing to be there.
Less obvious than exercise is the social development children gain from play. When playing they have to organise the activity, make the rules, set the boundaries, settle disputes, reach compromises, make up after upsets. They have to be honest and give themselves up when they are out. If a friend arrives with two younger siblings they have to work out how to integrate them into the game.
Some children are lucky enough to live near an adventure playground where they can play freely. The playworker’s role is to enable rather than to organise the children. In this way children can build dens, use real tools, light fires. They can have more adventurous activities than on a conventional playground.
These benefits from play are there precisely because adults are NOT organising what happens. In play, adults do not follow a curriculum that is tested at various stages. Children take the initiative and organise themselves. They learn naturally what will give the most fun and fulfilment. We take the social development of all this sophisticated agreement-making for granted because children have always done it for themselves, throughout the ages.
What’s gone wrong?
So what’s gone wrong? There has been a massive environmental problem that is unrecognised. For generations, people had public open space just outside the home, where adults could walk and talk, and children could play. It was called the street. But now the car has been allowed to dominate even residential side roads. The result is that children cannot play out, and so they are less fit, more obese and less emotionally resilient than previous generations. Parents are blamed for wrapping their children in cotton wool and stopping them from playing, but they are in fact making sensible decisions to keep their children away from the danger of fast cars.
Covid restrictions have made matters worse and governments refuse to recognise that the increasing problems of damaged physical and mental health are caused by the lack of freedom to play – NOT a lack of school.
Playgrounds are valuable, but less than 10 per cent of children have access to a playground where they can play freely every day. The government in England is ignoring the other 90 per cent. Town parks or destination playgrounds are great as family facilities, but only for the one or two occasions per week when parents have time to take their children.
The Government makes the classic mistake of concentrating on outputs (number of playgrounds) rather than outcomes (can children play freely every day). The number of playgrounds is counted whether or not children can access them in safety. A strategy of restricting traffic on side roads would permit children to play out. They would be in small numbers and in the outdoors so would be safer than going back to crowded indoor classrooms.
Playing is a vital part of children’s development. Given a chance, it is what they will happily do for hours on end. It’s a natural part of their development. Of course, they will spend time on computer games, but as the previous generation found when radio and TV emerged, they still wanted to get out and play.
In summary, freedom to play outside, but close to home, is vital for children’s healthy development. Ignoring it is damaging children’s physical and mental health.
Rob Wheway is the director and principal consultant of the Children’s Play Advisory Service