While some English councils are closing playgrounds against Government advice, we, along with a coalition of experts and campaigners have written to Boris Johnson urgently calling for outdoor play to be recognised as an essential activity for children’s mental and physical wellbeing during lockdown.
A report published last week confirmed the devastating impact of the pandemic on children’s physical activity levels. With schools and sports clubs closed, playing outside near home is an important way for children to stay active and healthy – and for those in flats or with no garden it is essential. But a lack of clarity within the rules has left parents and police confused about whether it is allowed. Acceptable activities listed under the rule allowing outdoor exercise include walking, running and cycling for adults, but not children’s play.
Charlotte Thorne, a parent from Central London, said, “my children have been told off for playing football in the park during lockdown and the police stopped my daughter and her friend climbing a tree. We don’t have much access to outside space other than the parks. I’ve encouraged the children to go there alone so that they maintain their independence and their fitness levels so it’s really frustrating when they are policed so closely for bothering no one and doing no harm”.
Newcastle University academic Alison Stenning, who is researching play during the pandemic said, “Parents we spoke to talked about the difficult decisions they had to make about outdoor play and feeling judged by others. Some talked of constantly looking over their shoulders while their children played or being aware of other people’s disapproval, with lots of different opinions about what was appropriate or allowed”.
Since the first lockdown, we have heard too many stories of parents keeping their children indoors or feeling judged for just letting them play outside. Whilst Wales and Scotland have both clearly stated in their guidance that outdoor play is not just allowed but important for children’s wellbeing, the UK government’s rules for England do not mention play. Just a simple change in the wording would mean parents can feel confident to let their children play outside – with the huge benefits that brings – without fear of being told off or even fined.
With some councils now closing playgrounds due to concerns about overcrowding, there is even more need for clarity that children are allowed to play outside in any public space, whether that’s a local green space or their own street, especially if that’s the only space they’ve got.
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, supports the call saying,
“We must learn from some of the mistakes that were made during the first lockdown, when children’s needs and rights were side-lined for too long, including the vital importance of safe outdoor play for children’s health and wellbeing. Especially with some councils now closing playgrounds, guidance needs to make very clear that outside play is allowed. We need government to act now, particularly to protect the needs of the most disadvantaged children and those without any private outdoor space.”