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Children's play recognised in new public health programme


Play Wales welcomes recognition of children’s play in new public health programme


While the benefits of how playing improves general physical health are recognised (Start Active, Stay Active 2011), it has been overlooked by mainstream health policy. Active play is one of the easiest and most natural ways that children of any age can engage in the necessary levels of physical activity. Studies show that the long-term health benefits of playing include boosting physical activity levels which helps to tackle child obesity, and supporting children to become more resilient.

Most people are aware of the growing obesity problem in Wales. However, the cost to the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children is also high. The A Good Childhood Inquiry (2009) found that our children are suffering an ‘epidemic of mental illness, with significant increases between 1974 and 1999 in the number of children suffering from conduct, behavioural and emotional problems’.

The National Trust’s Natural Childhood (2012) report suggests that ‘greater physical activity promotes better mental health, and a sedentary childhood leads to more mental health problems’. The idea that exercise can have positive effects on treating people with mental health issues is widely accepted, for example the Mental Health Foundation’s Up and Running publication (2005) shows the link between exercise and its impact on treating depression.

Public Health Wales’ new programme, Every Child Wales, to help parents give young children the best possible start in life, brings together lots of information and advice to support parents in giving children a happy and healthy start in life. The programme, which includes ten steps to support parents to ensure their children are a healthy weight, advises that children should play outdoors every day.

The latest issue of our new Focus on Play publication provides information to support public health professionals to consider the role they hold in supporting better opportunities for children to play in their own communities. Children and young people need and are entitled to quality places and time for play as part of their everyday life within their own community.

Accessing places for play and recreation must be easy. Action is needed to ensure that all children have access to local spaces for play and recreation. Open spaces need to be protected and promoted as good and acceptable places to play and access to them must be better.

Children’s ability to play outdoors locally should to be promoted. Residential roads should be reclaimed for play. It should be easier for communities to close their streets for street play sessions (through, for example, changes to the Road Traffic Regulation Act (1984) and removing the requirement for parents to take out expensive local advertising to inform people about temporary street closures for play). Government at all levels should join the National Institute of Health & Clinical Excellence (NICE 2008) in actively promoting urban design that gets children more active, by better enabling them to travel independently and play out on their local streets and neighbourhoods.

Efforts to improve physical activity and wellbeing in schools should focus on more than just sport and physical education. A Welsh Government report on Schools and Physical Activity failed to reference the broad definition of physical activity and rather made a single recommendation that physical education (PE) be made a core subject. This was a missed opportunity to encourage taking a whole-school approach to physical activity. Schools should be directed to ascertain the feasibility of opening up grounds for unstructured play out of school hours for the benefit of the community.

Confusion and concerns over health and safety regulations that are preventing many children from taking part in active outdoor play must be addressed. Half of children polled for a Playday survey said they had been prevented from climbing a tree because it is ‘too dangerous’ (ICM/Playday 2008). Play Wales supports the Health and Safety Executive’s statement on the importance of considering the benefits, as well as the risks, when assessing children’s play (2012). All those working with children should adopt this holistic approach to risk assessment.

There is an urgent need to address the negative perceptions of children and young people playing in their communities. The intolerance of children and young people playing out in their communities is having an increasingly detrimental effect on the health of children. The restriction imposed on the freedom of movement by children by the misuse of anti-social behaviour orders has contributed to a negative view of children and young people accessing public space and made children less active.

Priortising and investing in children’s play will result in improvements in children’s health and wellbeing, and hence a reduction in the pressures on the National Health Service in Wales and the public purse. Enabling children to do what comes naturally to them – playing – should be a public health priority.