Coronavirus lockdown gives a chance to ‘correct under-investment’ in play provision

The head of a leading children’s UK play industry body hopes the right of youngsters to free play provision will be financially preserved once the corona pandemic has subsided.

With thousands of playgrounds padlocked shut for the best part of a month now, Mark Hardy, chairman of the Association of Play Industries (API) says the coronavirus crisis has resulted in an ‘awakening’ for the nation, and forced society to reappraise ‘what we really need’ – and that a world where children cannot play outside is not an option.

‘Renewed appreciation for many aspects of our lives’

In an impassioned blog, Hardy says that when we ‘finally emerge blinking’ from the crisis and are able to appraise its impact, it is his ‘sincere hope that children’s right to free-to-access outdoor play provision gets the investment it so desperately needs’.

He adds: “The last extraordinary few weeks have brought about a renewed appreciation for so many aspects of our lives.  As our day-to-day has been stripped back to basics in a way that none of us could have imagined, much of what we took for granted has disappeared.  We are seeing with fresh eyes what was always right in front of us and feeling the loss of those things we thought were constants.”

The API has a strong voice, being the lead trade association for the UK play sector, with its members made up of companies who provide outdoor and indoor playground equipment & safety surfacing for schools, local authorities, parish councils, leisure attractions, holiday parks, housing developments, hospitality venues and commercial enterprises.

‘Right to access safe outdoor play is essential’

“With children in lockdown and playgrounds closed, we are experiencing a world where millions of children have nowhere to play outside, albeit temporarily,” continues Hardy. “We all know that the right to access safe outdoor play provision is essential for children’s wellbeing, but we are now living the reality of life without it, witnessing its effects and fearing for our children’s mental and physical health.

“The sad fact is, however, that UK children living in urban areas have been experiencing an alarming reduction in their opportunities for outdoor play well before our current crisis.  Many children, particularly those in the UK’s most deprived areas, have been living their own kind of lockdown, so alarming has been the decline in the number of public playgrounds. Cash-strapped local authorities have been forced to close or neglect hundreds of playgrounds throughout the UK.

“Free to access, public playgrounds bring about an equality for children as important as access to free education and healthcare.  Not all families have gardens and for those children with limited or no outdoor space they are a lifeline.  If we didn’t know how important playgrounds were before Covid-19, we do now.  Free outdoor play is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s non-negotiable and something that all children have the right to take for granted.

‘Opportunity to correct massive under-investment in playgrounds’

“There will, of course, be considerable economic fall-out from the crisis and it remains to be seen how this will be managed in the years to come.  But certainly now, the groundswell of opinion seems to be that we can never again short-change those basic services and facilities upon which we all so fundamentally rely.

Hardy concludes: “The suffering brought about by Covid-19 is undeniable, but if it is the catalyst for a realignment of priorities it will at least have left something positive behind.  The lockdown is tough on everyone with children no exception; however there is an opportunity to correct the massive under-investment in public playgrounds and safeguard children’s mental and physical health for generations.”

The API has also written to the UK government’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry, Impact of Covid-19 on DCMS sectors, detailing the immediate and medium-term impact of play space closures.  As well as the obvious effects on children’s mental and physical health, the letter also outlines the ways in which the lockdown is affecting its members, including the difficulties many are experiencing accessing the government grants and loans put in place to support businesses.

Play Must Stay campaign

The API has also urged the committee to restore spending in the sector to at least pre-COVID-19 levels once restrictions are lifted and expressed the hope that the renewed recognition of community playgrounds caused by the lockdown means that our small but vital industry is not overlooked.

The API campaigns for increased investment in community playgrounds – click here for its Play Must Stay campaign.

Author: Simon Weedy

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