Government and health professional guidelines state that children aged 5-18 need an hour each day of what they call ‘moderate to vigorous physical activity’ to be healthy and well. Evidence shows a staggering 80% of UK children are not getting this, and it’s feeding into all kinds of growing health problems in children including clinical obesity and diabetes, as well as storing up future health problems for them as adults. With the cost of obesity alone already costing the NHS £6.1 billion a year and over £27 billion to the economy, as well as the personal cost of any health problems, the decline in children’s activity levels is widely being described as a public health crisis, with effective solutions thin on the ground.
In 2016 the World Health Organisation published a report on Ending Childhood Obesity. It stresses how childhood experience “can have an important influence on life-long physical activity habits“. In short, what we experience as a child will impact – positively or negatively – on how active we are for the rest of our lives. So it’s is a crucial time. The report recommends the creation of: “safe, physical activity-friendly communities which enable and encourage the use of active transport (walking, cycling etc.) and participation in an active lifestyle...”
If you give children space and freedom outdoors, evidence, experience and common sense all show that they will quite naturally play and be more active. One mum has described it as children “getting exercise without noticing”. As actual time spent in formal parks and play spaces is quite low for various reasons, playing out in the street gives children a chance to do this close to home, and playing out sessions can help this to happen. More and more we are seeing that residential streets are spaces – could be spaces – where good habits can form.
Research by the University of Bristol has shown that at playing out sessions, children are three to five times more active than they would be on a ‘normal’ day after school. A more interview-based evaluation of streets in Hackney, London, also highlighted the significant amount of physical activity at street play sessions, finding it equivalent to 14 additional weekly PE lessons each school term. Professor Angie Page’s report from the University of Bristol – “Why temporary street closures for play make sense for public health” – suggests that our low-cost, grassroots model is a scaleable intervention that could make “a meaningful contribution to children’s physical activity levels”.
Playing out sessions give children the time, space and opportunity to play freely outdoors when their ability to do so independently has been declining for decades. Research shows that play is not an optional extra, it’s fundamental to children’s physical, social, mental and emotional development, as well as to their immediate happiness and wellbeing. A child’s right to play is enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Through playing out, children can also build physical and practical skills like learning to ride a bike and scoot safely, ready for other local journeys. In our 2017 Survey of streets that have held playing out sessions, the majority of people reported that children had learned or improved these skills including riding a bike (80%), scooting (85%), roller skating (63%) and skipping (66%), as well as other activities like skate boarding, balancing and learning various street games like Hopscotch and Hide and Seek. Jo in Bristol says: “My boy has been practising cycling during our playing out sessions and it’s totally paid off. He’s now independently cycling.”
Playing out freely with others helps to grow important life skills including the ability to assess risks, have good judgement and problem solve. Also to know whom to trust in emergencies and how to react to new and challenging situations. During playing out sessions children can practise these skills in a safe space with parents and carers nearby.
Playing out in the street can mean children make new friends of different ages and backgrounds and often from different schools. They also get to know some of the adults in their street. These things increase their sense of belonging and trust, and help to strengthen the whole street community. In our survey of streets that have played out, the majority of people reported that children had learned or improved social skills, including interacting with other children (88%), interacting with adults (83%) and learning about road safety (56%).