With obesity levels soaring amongst children, and mental health increasingly affecting young people, the Children’s Commissioner for England’s report Playing Out highlights the importance of play and physical activity in children
The Children’s Commissioner for England’s report Playing Out highlights that many children are spending their free time sedentary, indoors and glued to technology instead of playing and being outdoors.
The report identifies three barriers to children playing out. These are an over-dependence on technology, reluctance from parents to allow children out, and a lack of free, high-quality play spaces.
Highlighting the decrease in the amount of high quality play spaces, research by the Association of Play Industries (API) showed that between 2014/15 and 2015/16, local authorities across England closed 214 children’s playgrounds, and may close a further 234 in the future.
With so many children leading technology-lead, sedentary lives in their free-time, schools play a vital role in offering play and physical activities. The report also calls on more support for opportunities for play to happen during holidays and outside of school time.
Why is play and activity important?
Play and physical activity is crucial for children’s well being and development. Children who play are happier and more confident, better at dealing with stress and forming healthy attachments, and tend to be in better physical health. Playing and being active supports children’s physiological, cardiovascular and motor skills development. It is also crucial in enabling children to maintain a healthy weight.
Play also helps with cognitive development, such as problem solving, memory and concentration, as well as social development, such as learning how to negotiate, cooperate and see things from other people’s points of view.
Mental health is the most frequently raised issue with the Children’s Commissioner’s Office and one in 10 children have a mental health disorder. Therefore, the impact that the lack of play and activity is having on mental health can not be ignored.
Despite these benefits, the proportion of children being active is extremely low. In 2015, just one in four (23 per cent) boys and 1 in 5 (20 per cent) girls aged 5-15 met the recommended 60 minutes of activity each day.
Girls are a lot less active than boys: boys aged 8- 15 spend on average 40 minutes per day on sports activities compared with just 25 minutes per day for girls.
What’s more, inactivity increases with age. In 2015, five per cent of girls and boys aged 2-4 were sedentary for 6 hours or more per day on weekdays, compared to 18 per cent of boys aged 13-15 and 23 per cent of girls aged 13-15.
The latest results from the latest national child measurement programme (NCMP) meanwhile, shows that the rate of severe obesity among year 6 children (aged 10 to 11) has increased by more than a third since 2006 to 2007 to 4.2 per cent – its highest rate ever.
The impact of technology
Technology and social media is taking up a lot of children’s time. The latest figures from Ofcom show that children aged 5 to 15 spend an average of nearly two hours a day online during the week, and nearly three hours a day at the weekend. What’s more, over 150,000 children aged 12 to 15 spend over eight hours a day online at the weekend.
The report calls for the NHS and Public Health England to make children’s play and physical activity a public health priority. One of their recommendations is to encourage early healthy habits by funding activities to help pre-school get active and stay active.
With regards to family life, the report says help should be given to parents to understand the importance of play and activity by providing information and advice following the birth of their child, and help parents to develop strategies and techniques to enable the family to turn screens off, get out and be active.
The report acknowledges that the government’s obesity plan focuses mainly on in-school activity, but argues that out of school activity must be at the heart of the plan to reduce obesity. It says: “We know that being active is just as important as diet when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, and that the need to be active does not end at the school gates. The sugar tax levied for the first time in April is expected to raise £240m per year, with the funds being used to improve school sports provision, playgrounds, kitchen and dining facilities. Some of the proceeds should instead be used to promote 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.”
The report also says that the benefits of play and activity are often overlooked by policymakers when it comes to tackling other challenges faced by children, including mental health and technology use. For example, physical activity is barely mentioned in the government’s green paper on Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health, with no measures included to specifically address activity as a key determinant of mental health.
While the Internet Safety Strategy green paper recognises the need to advise parents about minimising screen time, it does not recognise the need to offer alternative ways for children to spend their time. Enabling children to play and be active needs to be brought back into all areas of children’s policy.
After school and holiday time
Reducing the bureaucracy in getting financial help for childcare after school and during school holidays is cited as an important measure to increase activity in the report.
Holiday and out of school clubs provide important opportunities for children to play, be active and spend positive time with friends. They offer important physical health benefits, boost mental health and improve children’s social skills, while also providing childcare for parents. However, these schemes are often expensive, and getting financial help can be complicated. Many schemes are reliant on childcare vouchers (which ceased in October) or tax-free childcare, the take-up of which has been extremely low, –90 per cent lower than initially expected, according to figures released by HMRC in March 2018. This also means that these schemes are rarely used by disadvantaged children – those least likely to be active.
When it comes to looked after children, the report believes that holiday and out of school activities should be funded.
It says there is a great deal of inconsistency in how local authorities approach funding these activities for looked after children, leaving many children unable to access them. Some provide specific funding for this, others do not. Some put the onus on foster carers to ask for it, others proactively fund providers to put aside places for looked after children. In order to ensure that children in care can access this vital provision, all local authorities should provide funding directly to providers and publicise holiday clubs to foster carers.
Giving youngsters more play opportunities in local areas is another way to boost activity levels. The report calls on local authorities to think strategically about how to promote play, and work with local venues to maximise the use of existing facilities.
Given its importance to health and wellbeing, play provision should be strategically planned as part of each area’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA). Local authorities should also identify existing facilities which could be opened up for wider use by children use – sports halls, fields and other facilities in leisure centres and schools too often stand empty, particularly in the school holidays.
Local authorities should begin conversations with these venues to identify ways of enabling children to make use of them for free, or at a minimal cost. Local areas must also ensure that adequate space for children to play is factored into new residential developments, to enable children to get outside in a safe space next to their home – especially young children who cannot go away from home unsupervised.
It is also important to make parks and other areas a safe, child-friendly space, but investment is needed, the report says.
Play is a vital way for children to get active. This is recognised in the fund from the PE and Sport Premium which can go towards new school playgrounds. What is clear is that parents, schools, local authorities and central government all have a vital part to play.