Kids suffer deeply when playtime is not prioritized

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Children’s lives during summer vacation have been likened to that of battery hens, confined unnaturally and cruelly for long periods of time.

For all the fussing over child nutrition and physical activity, there is remarkably little said about another very important aspect of children’s lives — playtime. Adults tend to perceive playtime as superfluous; it’s seen as fun, but less important than school lessons, standardized tests, organized sports, even nutritious food. In Guardian writer Aditya Chakrabortty’s words, “Play is treated as a luxury good, and we know what happens to luxuries: they become unaffordable to those without money.”

This assumption, however, is extremely harmful to children, all of whom rely on play for optimal physical and mental development. While adults might belittle “child’s play” (ironically using the phrase to refer to easy or insignificant tasks), for children the presence or absence of play makes a huge difference. Take it away and their lives can be likened to those of battery hens, enclosed indoors in confined spaces, not allowed to engage in natural behavior.

The United Nations has stated “that every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”

Very few adults take this seriously, but Wales is one admirable exception. The country has done a remarkable job at turning the UN’s declaration into law, stating in a parliamentary measure in 2010 that every local Welsh authority “must secure sufficient play opportunities in its area for children.” This has had a profound effect on urban design, on plans for new housing projects, on towns’ abilities to plan special play days for kids, on the creation of adventure playgrounds using funds cobbled together from donations, grants, and other budgets.

Writing for the Guardian, Chakrabortty describes a wonderful play space in Flintshire, north Wales, where kids play for free every day of the summer holidays. There are adult overseers, but the kids are set loose to do as they please. This is an area where one-third of families live below the poverty line. City council member Janet Roberts said, “Some of these kids aren’t going on holiday. This is it. This is summer. So we’re going to make it as amazing as possible.”

playgroundMaxPixel — More of this, please!/Public Domain

Contrast that to the fate of kids in the rest of Britain, Canada, the United States, and other parts of the world. Unprotected by the law, they are entirely at the mercy of their parents’ willingness (and ability) to prioritize play, as well as limited by whatever their local municipality has provided in terms of free, accessible play space. For many, where there is no playground, there is no play to be had.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England (whose battery hen comparison I used above), wants family doctors to start prescribing play for children — that’s how badly they need it. She said that physical health deteriorates significantly over the summer holidays for children who are kept indoors. A study conducted last year by UKactive found that, during summer,

“The primary school children in the study lost 80 percent of the fitness levels gained during term time. The poorest 25 percent experienced a drop in fitness levels 18 times greater than the richest 25 percent.”

Longfield would like a portion of the British sugar tax, estimated to top £240 million this year, to go toward subsidizing children’s play. Whether it’s through the construction of good playgrounds (interactive, adventurous ones, instead of the bubble-wrapped boredom boxes that dominate nowadays), or the purchase of play sessions in pre-existing adventure playgrounds, investment in children’s unstructured playtime needs to become as much a priority as offering breakfast and lunch programs at school and funding extra-curricular sports.

“When and where do the children play?” should be a question that every adult asks, whether it’s a parent choosing a new school or signing up for after-school activities this fall, or if it’s a teacher or principal planning out the school year, or a town council drawing up new bylaws and approving development plans. If we truly care about the mental and physical wellbeing of the next up-and-coming generation, then we must let them play freely, wildly, unsupervised, and out of doors.



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