There is a junction in a residential area of Hackney that has
become a play space for three boys of about 11. Every day they are
there, dodging the cars, which appear every 20 seconds or so, to
play football. Today it looks dangerous, but a generation ago the
street was every child’s playground.
Even parks and fields which previous generations enjoyed are
rapidly disappearing under concrete. As a result Britain is in
danger of producing a generation of “battery-reared” children who
are obese, risk-averse and prone to mental health problems.
Last year more than 200 playing fields were under threat of sale
or closure, according to the National Playing Fields Association.
Estimates suggest that in London adventure playgrounds are down
from 150 to 80. And there is no legal obligation on housing
developers or even nursery providers to offer any outdoor play
The Audit Commission has found that each child under 12 now has
a ration of outdoor play space about the size of a kitchen table.
In England, 80 times more space is given over to golf.
Tim Gill, outgoing director of the Children’s Play
Council, says the average eight year old’s “home habitat”
(areas they can travel around alone) has shrunk to a ninth of its
former size within a generation.
And parents are working longer hours and are less inclined to
let their child play outside for fear of traffic, bullying or
having their child labelled as antisocial.
The popularity of computer games is merely a symptom of families
trying to stave off cabin fever, suggests Gill.
The most obvious effect is on children’s health. The
obesity epidemic affecting children is well documented. The British
Heart Foundation classifies two-thirds of all girls as “inactive”
by the age of 15.
The Mental Health Foundation has also argued that lack of
outdoor play is contributing to the rise of mental illness in young
But play is an issue this government has taken seriously.
“Enjoyment, with achievement” was given as one of the five key
outcomes in the children’s green paper Every Child
The National Lottery is handing out £200m in grants for
outdoor play projects, although there are concerns the cash may not
be ring-fenced. The aim is to target resources at areas without
outdoor play spaces, and to improve disabled access. The test of
success is whether children actually use the play spaces
There are signs that others are picking up the ball the
government has set rolling. London mayor Ken Livingstone aims to
give all children and young people “safe, attractive play spaces
within walking distance of their homes”.
These spaces need to be open, visible and at the heart of
familiar territory for children, where they are likely to meet
friends. “Strategies that attempt to simply corral children into
‘safe places’ are not likely to succeed,” says a draft
policy paper from Livingstone.
What older children in particular need is an opportunity to take
“Oversafe playgrounds can create more danger by causing children
to look for their fun elsewhere,” says the paper. “Conversely, a
playground equipped with the best apparatus can be underused and
vandalised if it is not under some kind of supervision to safeguard
Livingstone suggests that interest, a sense of ownership and
creativity can be engaged by involving children in artwork and
playground naming competitions.
Some imaginative solutions can result. The Mayfield Estate in
Rushmoor, Surrey, had a playground notorious for antisocial
behaviour. Input from teenagers into the redesign resulted in the
introduction of challenging apparatus, including a lookout point
and a large spinning net.
What is clear is that children will vote with their feet if
spaces are poorly designed. “Too many playgrounds are windswept
identikit patches of fixed play equipment in a sea of wet-pour
surfacing, placed on faraway, isolated scraps of land that are no
use for anything else,” says Gill. “Is it any wonder so many get