There’s a seismic shift going on in the world of playgrounds. It’s not too long ago that school playgrounds were little more than large expanses of empty tarmac and that the public park was the place to find all the exciting equipment. Today, that situation is very much the reverse. While many schools have made considerable improvements to their playgrounds, cash strapped councils are having to close theirs down.
According to a recent article in the Guardian, a funding crisis in the play sector means many public playgrounds are in such a dilapidated state that councils are no longer in a position to reopen them. After years of austerity and the capping of council tax, councils have been forced to focus their spending on statutory responsibilities. As a result, play provision has disappeared off the list of priorities. Not only are improvements becoming fewer; many authorities are struggling just to pay for the necessary maintenance of existing playground equipment, without which it is unwise and potentially unsafe to keep them open.
The Association of Play Industries has found that over 340 playgrounds have been closed across England over the last few years and those still in use have seen their budgets cut by £13 million, year on year. In many cases, it is groups of parents who are seeking to make improvements, often having to resort to crowdfunding to pay for any repairs.
This is not, however, the only problem for parents and children looking for play areas. While the government has begun the process of mass home building across the country to deal with the housing shortage, families moving into these areas are finding few, if any, local playgrounds being developed at the same time. Despite a playground being an amenity that could improve the value for all the homes in these areas, developers stand to make more money using those spaces to build more houses. Many of those which have been built remain largely unused because the budgets were so small they hold no attraction for the children.
For those living in social housing, it’s a lottery as to whether there’s a good local playground. Some housing associations are willing to invest properly in providing high-quality playgrounds while others will merely contribute towards their upkeep and assist local groups with fundraising activities.
What does this mean for schools?
Regardless of the numerous learning benefits that a school playground provides children with, the benefits of play for their physical health and mental wellbeing are considerable. It is recommended that children take part in an hour of physical activity every day. They can get much of this from taking part in playground games or from playing on equipment like climbing frames. Doing so helps keep them aerobically fit, strengthens their core muscles, improves physical skills like balance and coordination and improves general health and fitness. It also helps combat obesity and its associated illnesses that are increasingly common among children of all ages and which can have life-long consequences.
Physical activity has also been shown to have a beneficial effect on mental wellbeing, as does any form of social play that children participate in. Indeed, following the lockdown, there are many concerns about how the lack of socialising has affected children’s mental health and behaviour. When children first went back to school in September, schools reported more children struggling to play together and saw an increase in altercations. Ofsted, meanwhile, noted a concerning decrease in physical fitness.
As a result, child development experts are calling for parents and schools to give children and teenagers more time for active, outdoor play and socialising – something which contradicts Gavin Williamson's desire to extend school hours and provide summer schools to help children catch up with classwork.
However, with public playgrounds being closed down and many of those remaining needing maintenance before they can open once again, the spotlight falls very much on schools. Compared to a generation ago, today, the best equipped and safest playgrounds that children have access to are often found in the schoolyard, not at the local park or residential estate.
In the short term, when it comes to helping children deal with the aftermath of the pandemic, school playgrounds will have an important role to play in providing the physical and social activities long-isolated pupils so desperately need. In the long-term, however, if the number of public playgrounds continues to decline, the schoolyard may be, for many children, the only place left to enjoy the treasures of a well-equipped playground.
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