Our Steadily Worsening State of Play
Civitas, 23 March 2010
With election manifestos already likely to have been decided, it is unlikely any major political party will heed the call of the charity Play England to pledge that, if returned to office, they will increase children’s opportunities to play outdoors.
That will be a pity, for, in the last several decades, Britain has been steadily depriving children of safe open spaces in which to play, with profound adverse social consequences.
Consider the following statistics:
- Children in England today have half as much free time as they had 30 years ago
- 50 per cent of them have been stopped from climbing trees; 20 per cent banned from playing conkers; and 17 per cent forbidden to play games of tag.
- Whereas over 70 per cent of adults played near their homes daily when children, today only a fifth of children do.
- Since the 1980s the number of adventure playgrounds in London has halved.
- Whereas in 1987 the average 9 year old was free to wander ten minutes from their homes; by 1997, they could so for only three minutes and, by 2007, their free to roam zone had contracted to not much beyond their front gate.
Meanwhile, during the same period, the opportunity accorded children for physical exercise while at school or travelling to and from it contracted:
- Whereas, in 1994, nearly half of schoolchildren in England spent 2 or more hours a week in school engaged in sports, by 1999, only a third did.
- During the 1990s, the proportion of children walking to school fell from 62 per cent to 56 per cent, and the numbers cycling to school halved. Meanwhile, the number of children being driven to school rose from 26 per cent to 36 per cent.
These social trends are exerting a toll on children’s health.
- Whereas, between 1974 and 1984, the proportion of overweight and obese children was constant, it increased rapidly during the following decade.
- Whereas in 1984, 5 per of boys in England were overweight, by 1994, 9 per cent were. There was a comparable increase among girls.
While changes in diet contributed to these unhealthy trends, undoubtedly the increase in obesity in young children was not unconnected with the diminishing physical spaces available to for them to let off steam and play.
Not only has the country stored up a costly health problem in increased rates of adult heart disease, and other illnesses associated with overweight, it has also deprived children of opportunities for fun. Playing freely in open spaces certainly adds to the fun of childhood.
Reading about the just launched campaign of Play England reminded me of the great Cat Stevens’ song, ‘Where do the Children Play?’
Well worth a listen by our political masters and mistresses.