At a time when staffed play provision is being forced to close due to funding cuts, helping show the myriad benefits of outdoor play is vital. Research and evaluation projects that demonstrate these benefits can help local play organisations, including adventure playgrounds, secure funding. Play England’s recent ‘Street Play’ evaluation – that provides evidence of the clear links between active play and children’s health and wellbeing – has been widely promoted and discussed in a wide variety of contexts, such as people’s access to public space, tackling pollution and climate change to creating healthy, sustainable communities.
These are all valid contributions to the national debate to improve play opportunities for children. And, they are all absolutely vital if we are to win over wider sections of society to understand that children’s access to play is something that is also beneficial to them.
Initiatives like the ‘Playworks project’ are doing this on a local level, helping Adventure Playgrounds demonstrate the positive impact they have on their communities and why and how they benefit from them.
Adventure into Sport, Play England’s latest project, is another way of drawing attention to the benefits of play, in this case, showcasing the unique way that outdoor, child-led play can help children and young people stay healthy or get healthier. A pilot project, it builds on work that is taking place across the country.
‘The Big Swing’, Eccleshill Adventure Playground is one of the Adventure into Sport partners, based in the Ravenscliffe area of Bradford where 44% of the children grow up in poverty. A staggering 89.2% of children in Eccleshill are in the bottom 20% of the Child Wellbeing index. The adventure playground works closely with disadvantaged children including children from BAME communities, disabled children and children single parent families. Staff at Eccleshill work hard to provide exciting and engaging activities which benefit children’s health, well being, physical capabilities and literacy. The trained staff also support children to develop analytical, team-working, language and mathematical skills.
Like many adventure playgrounds, Eccleshill has built up strong links with local residents, schools, community organisations, as well as health and wellbeing bodies. It is part of ‘Active Bradford’, a multi-agency partnership board, which is taking a joined-up approach to improving children’s health and wellbeing, with play provision at its heart. The board has been following research into adult and children’s physical activity levels over a 10-year period carried out by the Bradford Institute for Health Research. ‘There is a real shift taking place here in terms of attitudes to children’s play. It’s seen as a key way to tackle the health inequalities we have here.’ Says Manager of Eccleshill and AiS Senior Development Worker, Janet Jewitt.
Initial evaluations from the Adventure into Sport help to reaffirm the centrality of children’s access to free outdoor play in their health and wellbeing.
‘Once they discover the playground, in no time they are on the trampoline, climbing on all the structures. What we’ve also found is that, as children become regulars at the Playground, they develop really incredible gymnastic skills, like twisting somersaults on the trampoline, and acrobatic skills through free-running across all the climbing structures,’ says Janet. ‘I believe we have the next generation of Olympians in this playground. I want to make sure that, not only is play provision in this area expanded, but that also these children can reach their full potential.”
As a consequence of giving children the freedom to undertake this adventurous play, Janet and other playworkers at the Big Swing have seen how children’s confidence and athleticism has improved. Building links with organisations who can support and coach these highly talented children is an obvious next step. “If the natural marriage between play and sport enables us to tackle inequalities, improve health and well-being for some of the poorest communities in the country, as well as convert old-age attitudes to rethink the benefits of play, these are all positives in my book,” she says.
Play England believes that all projects that show the benefits of improving children’s access to free outdoor play can help the campaign to win increased funding and national recognition once again for the centrality of play in our society.
Helping show that play providers, such as adventure playgrounds, are best placed to engage and support hard-to-reach children and young people is another aspect of the ‘Adventure into Sport’ project. With only 10% of teenagers motivated by competitive sport, Sport England and regional sports organisations are starting to acknowledge that providing environments that are unstructured, non-judgemental, fun and sociable can be a far more effective way of helping young people enjoy physical activity. It’s important that the play sector is aware of this shift in thinking and so can use the opportunities available to benefit from wider funding streams.