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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:

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.

1 comments on “Our Steadily Worsening State of Play”

  1. Let’s hope politicians start taking the hint that more needs to be done to reverse the decline in access to the outdoors. While the reasons for the decline in children’s play and connection generally with the outdoors and nature are complex – it doesn’t mean we should put them in the box of ‘too difficult to deal with’.

    Having safe and inspiring green spaces in urban areas for children to play in is vitally important. However we must remember that the UK is also blessed with thousands of acres of publicly available land for children to play in and learn about. Of course I recognise getting there can be an issue for many children and parents. However, I believe that by creating an entitlement to outdoor learning in the curriculum it will ensure all children have some level of access the countryside or urban green spaces. This would put pressure on Government to direct resources to increasing the amount of safe green space available in urban areas and ensuring children could go on school trips in the wider countryside.

    This may sound like a terribly good idea I hear you say, but where will the money come from? If Government can commit £332 million to the Music Manifesto (like it did in 2007), it sure as hell can increase mere £740,000 it dedicated to the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto in 2009! Music is important, but so is outdoor learning which helps children develop a sense of self and understand the world around them. Its time for Government to respond to the 85% of children who want more outdoor learning at school, the 97% of teachers that believe the countryside is important for children to learn about in the curriculum and 92% of parents who want more opportunities for their children to get out the classroom and learn about nature and farming.

    We’re calling for outdoor education to be an entitlement within the National Curriculum and have launched a five point plan to ensure it happens. Outdoor learning and play are vitally important, if you want to know more about our outdoor education campaign, go to


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