Play is fundamental to the wider wellbeing of children. If play is restricted, that is likely to have a profound effect on physical and mental health, now and into the future.
There is a crisis in children’s mental health, with some reports saying that as many as 20 per cent of children have some degree of mental illness and that problem might be rising. Without adequate access to play, children cannot develop the important emotional skills needed to protect them from anxiety and depression. Research from the charity Fields in Trust shows, for the first time at national level, a direct and statistically significant link between the availability of public parks and green spaces and health and wellbeing.
We must not take playgrounds and play facilities for granted. This is an area of policy that could fall between the gaps.
I do not like to bang on about money constantly because I know the situation is tight, but we should invest to save. Investing a pound in good play facilities now will yield better returns and savings for the health service and the education system in the long run. We cannot rely on developers’ section 106 contributions for new play facilities. They make a bit of a difference, but only in areas in which development is taking place. We gain from having open spaces for free-style play, but having structure in playground provision costs money, and we need to think about investing in such facilities.
Ministers must think about what a mere £100 million could achieve. It would deliver 1,600 playgrounds and play spaces.
Children’s voices should be better represented as policies are developed. The parks and green spaces sector has not had a dedicated national voice or leadership in Government since the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was merged with the Design Council back in 2011, and the closure of the charity GreenSpace in 2013 was a great loss. The lack of a dedicated national leadership agency on this issue is holding back the development of children’s playgrounds, parks and open spaces.
The other day, the Government launched the “Integrated Communities Strategy”, which relates to how we can help communities to come together. We talked earlier about the social cohesion gains that could come from that. Although the “Integrated Communities Strategy” green paper mentioned bringing neighbourhoods together, it could have focused much more on play. Minister must think about adding play to the portfolio to address the real threats that exists. Taking action to open up the mental and physical health benefits of outdoor play to the widest possible range of children from all backgrounds will make a real difference.
The Heritage Lottery Fund recently removed its “Parks for People” programme. It is one of the greatest ironies that, after the financial crisis, the lottery provided some of the most stable funding for community development, and we have relied on it for the past decade. That was the only dedicated parks restoration fund, and without it there is less opportunity to bid for grants.
We need to prove that every pound spent on children’s playgrounds will lead to great returns. Next month, Fields in Trust will publish a report that shows that the value that lower socioeconomic groups place on parks and green spaces is higher than the national average. A reduction in the quantity and quality of those spaces may disproportionately affect those who need them most. This is not just about money. We need to gather that evidence together. The alarming statistics in the Association of Play Industries’ report, combined with the continued increase in child obesity, lead me to ask whether we can commission a deeper and more thorough report into the state of play facilities and open spaces across the entire United Kingdom. Research with a particular emphasis on the prevalence of obesity and other health issues in certain geographical areas will allow us to examine the correlations and help us to make more appropriate decisions about play policy.
A well-maintained and loved community play and recreation area fosters social cohesion, encourages children to be active and lifts the spirit and mood of the whole community. We need a renaissance in children’s play across the country.
Chris Leslie is Labour/Co-operative MP for Nottingham East. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.