Play can beat obesity

Despite the focus on food in the publicity surrounding the
Health Select Committee’s report on obesity, the committee
clearly recognised that physical activity is equally important. It
praises the government for investing in sport and recreation,
especially in schools, but sadly it has neglected the vitally
important area of unstructured play for young children.

The British Medical Journal proposed in 2001 that the
best way to reverse the obesity epidemic in young children was to
reduce television viewing and promote playing. “Opportunities for
spontaneous play may be the only requirement that young children
need to increase their physical activity” said the BMJ. A
study by University College London1 published in March
this year highlighted the benefit of unstructured play to children,
placing it second only to PE in calorific intensity. It concluded
that “walking and playing provide children with more physical
activity than most other activities”.

The select committee’s report makes the important point
that obese children often miss out on sport and structured physical
activity, an issue that is surely linked to the wider problem that
“making society… more active is an extremely difficult task”.
However, anyone who has ever cared for very young children knows
that, for them, the reverse is true: the natural mode of transport
for a three year old is hopping and skipping. Young children
don’t need to be encouraged to be physically active, they
just need the barriers removed.

Health and lifestyle patterns take shape in very early life. The
point is that the natural spontaneous physicality of the pre-school
child – whose primary mode is play – is the greatest resource in
the fight against increasing obesity. Very young children, still
forces of nature, are not yet constricted by the “entrenched
societal norms” described by the committee. Given the chance to
run, skip, climb and jump, they all do. If policy were to focus on
recreating the child-friendly environments in which children grow
up they would enter school with much greater proclivity for
physical activity and a natural inclination for a healthier

Yet this government has dropped any reference to play and
recreation from its Children Bill. It has been sitting for three
years on an independent report calling for a national play
strategy, and has now reneged on a promise to respond to the review
of children’s play, led by Frank Dobson, that was to release
a much needed investment of lottery funding for outside play

A key solution to the problems of obesity lie in the development
of policy that embraces key elements of a healthy childhood, which
must include a strategy for children’s play.

Children’s Lives More Active
, Roger Mackett, Centre for
Transport Studies, UCL March 2004

Making the Case for
, Children’s Play Council, 2001

Adrian Voce is director of London Play, which is
drafting a play strategy for the London Mayor as part of his
children and young people’s strategy.

Adrian Voce is chair of the Children’s Play

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.