A Children’s Commissioner’s report on the importance to children of play and physical activity
We all remember the long hot summers of our childhood with endless warm days playing out and having fun with our friends from dawn until dusk. There is, of course, a serious chance that our memory is getting the better of us and telling us what we want to remember rather than what actually happened. That said, there can be no doubt that for children growing up in 2018 things have changed – a lot.
Today’s children are the least active generation ever. Just 1 in 4 boys and 1 in 5 girls in England do the recommended 60 minutes of activity each day. At the same time, figures from Ofcom tell us that children between the ages of 5 and 15 spend nearly 2 hours a day online during the week and nearly hours a day at the weekend. Playing out used to be a feature of every child’s day, children now spend just four hours a week playing out.
This is part of a wider trend. The area around the home where children are allowed to go unsupervised has shrunk by 90% since the 70s. And the problem now gets worse during school holidays. Research from ukactive suggests that children return to school in September less fit than when they broke up in July, with children from poorer areas worse affected.
The fact of the matter is that busy lives, busy roads and fewer safe communal spaces have conspired to make what used to be a normal and spontaneous part of everyday life, an activity in itself something requiring planning, scheduling and adult supervision. It also increasingly needs to be paid for.It is not surprising then that some children feel that they are missing out. Children we spoke to felt that many of the good clubs and activities are out of their reach – too expensive or too far away from where they live. Others felt that there was little to do locally with play parks falling into disrepair or catering for a different age group. Some children are put off because they don’t feel that the public areas and parks are safe. Some would like more adult supervision in public spaces, more lights and more security measures. It is clear that the concern about public safety is shared by children as well as their parents – something that current headlines about serious violence in our cities will only add to.
Against this backdrop, the screen can seem an irresistible way of occupying children – able to absorb them for hours on end in the complete safety of the home. Many children told us how they expected to spend most of the summer online playing games, while others said that they would be online
chatting to their friends. We know that there are serious consequences of this increasingly sedentary childhood.
Play is important for children. Not only is it great fun but it also benefits their health and wellbeing. By playing, children try out new things, test themselves and learn new skills. Play is also a way of developing social and emotional skills: by playing with others children learn to share, take turns, negotiate and make friends – the exact opposite of the kind of worrying behaviour seen in violent gangs where supremacy, provocation and retaliation are all. Play fuels children’s imagination, creativity and expression. Play therapists tell us how children explain and process the world around them through play – especially important for those children who have experienced serious trauma. Far from being an inconsequential time filler, it is clear that play helps children grow into the rounded, sociable and skilled people we all want them to be.
So how can we turn the tide and ensure that play time isn’t consigned as an outmoded activity of the past, taking with it all its known benefits? How can we prevent it from being transformed simply into screen time, with children connecting and engaging with others only online, without the need for physical activity?
This paper has recommendations for national government, local councils, health trusts and for parents and children themselves. It precedes ukactive’s second Generation Inactive report, which presents valuable evidence and solutions to get more children more active, more often.
by Anne Longfield and Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson