Play is in some ways a delicate thing, largely unnoticed by the adult world. Yet when children are free to play, they thrive. There is plenty of evidence that playing is vital to their development, essential to good mental health and physical activity. Most importantly, playing is how they most enjoy being alive.
As Bristol gets ready for a mayoral election in 2016 the Bristol Play Network is calling on all the candidates to pledge their support for children’s play in Bristol: to include a serious commitment in their manifestos, to relaunch a comprehensive play strategy, and to show the leadership necessary to make Bristol a child friendly city and European Capital of Play.
In 2003 Bristol City Council endorsed their Play Strategy ‘Making Play Matter’. Over the next six years that strategy brought about PlayPods in primary schools, play rangers in parks, revitalised adventure playgrounds, newer and better playgrounds in 30 parks, a dedicated website Go Places To Play and an annual celebration ‘Play Day’ in front of the Council House. The council’s play strategy also supported and helped embed the resident-led ‘Playing Out’ model of temporary road closures for play.
But since 2010 children’s play appears to be a low priority for the council. There is no longer a dedicated council play officer and play development team. Bristol’s adventure playgrounds no longer run by the council are struggling with the challenges of Community Asset Transfer. While Copenhagen has over 45 adventure playgrounds including two new ones in 2015, Bristol now only has four. Bristol like Copenhagen may be a European Green Capital but Bristol’s ambition to be a European playful city is sadly withering on the vine.
Over a number of years there has been a great deal of research into the barriers that children face to play. The number one offender is invariably traffic, followed by parental anxiety about ‘stranger danger’.
Research (by Ipsos MORI, NOP and a range of academic institutions) has shown that other reasons for children not playing out as much as they and their parents would like include; anxieties about bullying, poorly maintained or boring playgrounds and undue pressure on children’s and adults’ time from school and work.
These barriers have become so great that some studies estimate that today’s children have less than 10 per cent of the space for free play, compared to only 30-40 years ago. Strong links have been made between this decline and a range of poor health trends.
This decline does not only affect children today, but adults tomorrow. Our approaches to inventiveness, creativity, problem solving and social interaction are dependent on our childhood experiences. Children today deserve and need the same unrestricted and unconditional play opportunities enjoyed by previous generations.
So what can be done to reverse this decline? The Bristol Play Network believes promoting children’s play brings people together and engenders strong, cohesive communities. In the longer-term, Bristol City Council’s planning decisions must consider how we can make Bristol a better place for children and their families. Children and their parents need to have confidence in the public spaces where
children play. They need more residential road closures, lower speed limits, safer routes to school and play areas, and more funding for community play projects.
Tom Williams, chair of the Bristol Play Network said ‘Play is essential for children’s health and well-being. We want to see all Bristol’s children playing freely together in their local neighbourhoods every day. We are calling upon the mayoral candidates to show that children’s play is something which they take seriously and commit to a long term funded play strategy in Bristol.’