The response to the recent air pollution alerts in London alarmed many of us who champion children’s right to play in the UK, writes Marguerite Hunter-Blair, Chief Executive of Play Scotland. Here she looks at the impact of environmental pollution on children’s play, and responses to it – both internationally and in Scotland.
The impact of these extreme environmental conditions on children’s opportunities and freedom to play outside was clear with children’s play time outside of the classroom cancelled in many schools and parents advised to keep children indoors.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013:10) asserts that certain conditions need to be assured if children are to realise their article 31 rights fully. These factors include, “an environment secure from social harm and violence, and sufficiently free from pollution, traffic and other hazards that impede free and safe movement”.
The General Comment warns that toxic urban environments often lead Caregivers to greatly restrict children’s free play and independence. And this is exactly what happened in London. As play champions in a world with increasing pollution levels we need to challenge this evolving social norm and ensure that children’s play needs come first.
Play England supported the call by Friends of the Earth for London’s Mayor to introduce emergency traffic restrictions when pollution episodes are high. ‘The solutions proposed for dealing with the latest smog have things backwards: the first step should be restricting traffic not people.’ I agree!
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, devoted its 2016 Day of General Discussion to Children’s Rights and the Environment. Inspired by this theme, the International Play Association (IPA) developed a discussion paper on Children’s Right to Play and the Environment
This makes clear that: “….the right to play should not be dependent on the environmental conditions.” Further observing, “as children’s well-being is shaped by where they live, the quality of play is fundamentally shaped by the environments it happens in.” The report is concerned about the impact of this on children’s life chances, stating “detrimental environmental changes are already affecting the overall safety of outdoor play for children….children’s access to play and a healthy quality of life are faltering.”
In Scotland, community pressure from parents and charities has encouraged some local authorities to review the impact of the ‘school run’ on children’s health and wellbeing, and take action. East Lothian, Glasgow and Edinburgh are some of the local authorities who have introduced pilot schemes and permanent measures to address the cross-cutting challenges of children making their way to the school gate. Charities like Living Streets and SUSTRANS have also supported local groups to take action while working with policy makers to develop innovative solutions.
Planning, health and environmental policies and departments all have a role to play in mitigating the impacts of pollution, congestion and traffic danger, while facilitating more sustainable and active travel modes to school. But developing sustainable solutions requires committed community engagement. School Streets pilots were introduced initially to limit traffic around the gates of primary schools to increase road safety and promote walking to school. The exclusion zones are community-driven and are not legally enforceable. This means that the community needs to fully embrace the scheme for it to work. This also means there is no need for expensive road traffic orders. Car free zones around schools now offer a broader range of benefits for our children: more space to play, cycle, walk and scoot; less exhaust fumes; less congestion; better outcomes for our children and young people.
Communities need to take action! Keeping children indoors is not the solution to pollution!