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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Generation of 'play deprivation'
By Sean Coughlan
Education reporter, BBC News

Glamis Adventure Playground
The Glamis Adventure Playground is an oasis in a tough environment

Play is a serious business - and a lack of play opportunities for children is becoming a form of deprivation, say play organisations.

All too often the subject of play has been trivialised, says Penny Wilson of the Play Association Tower Hamlets - consigned to local newspaper pictures of bouncy castles and "gappy-toothed children with their faces painted like clowns".

"This has nothing to do with what play is about," says Ms Wilson.

Play is an instinctive and essential part of childhood, she says, which is becoming more and more under pressure, with evidence that a lack of spontaneous play leaves a long-term social legacy.

"Play allows children to work out their emotions. When you're playing you're finding out about who you are," she says.

"Play isn't about fun. Even with very small children, you can see there is a symbolism to their play, there's a meaning to it."

Scheduler parents

But she warns that the world of play is being encroached upon from many different directions.

Penny Wilson
Penny Wilson is advising on play projects in London and the US

There are ambitious middle class parents who over-schedule their children's lives - so there is no time left for children to play their own imaginative games.

Outdoor play in the streets and parks has become much more limited - with anxious parents afraid about safety.

"Children's worlds are shrinking," she says.

Figures this summer from Play England, an agency dedicated to encouraging play provision, showed that while 71% of parents had played outside their homes, only 21% of their children were allowed that independence.

And the design of modern cities has left fewer spaces for play. She shows some bleak pictures of modern housing developments with only the most token of play equipment.

These play spaces, which can become threatening hang-outs, can even become places that children avoid.

"Play deprivation" is a problem that is also being addressed in the United States - and Ms Wilson has been hired to advise on projects in New York, Chicago and Washington which are "trying to reintroduce the concept of play".


"I'm really frightened about that generation of children who are growing up without having played," she says.

Mastery play - learning how to use objects
Creative play - playing with aesthetics
Deep play - learning about risk and danger
Recapitulative play - den building, hiding, climbing
Dressing up - experimenting with identity
Rough and tumble play - testing your own strength

"I did a play session in Manhattan with a class of eight-year-olds - and the children went completely crazy, bashing things up, they didn't know what to do with themselves."

Ms Wilson works with the US campaign group, the Alliance for Childhood, which has warned that "too little time for unstructured play leads to increased stress for children and parents".

And it echoes the findings of the American Academy of Pediatrics that "despite the benefits derived from play for both children and parents, time for free play has been markedly reduced for some children".

But how can play be under threat when every shopping centre has a barn-sized toy shop - and children's bedrooms are creaking with toys and gadgets?

"There's a direct correlation, because with many of the toys we buy, the toys do the playing, not the child. Play shouldn't be based on ownership," she says.

Buying an experience

This consumerist approach has taken away the initiative from children, she says.

Piano lessons
Playing in time: Are children's lives being too orchestrated by parents?

"Take birthday parties as an example. They've changed dramatically. People used to play games - having the experience of being with other children.

"Now parents buy an experience - a sleepover on a pirate's ship or a cinema visit. You're buying that time."

But there is also now a growing awareness of the importance of independent play.

As an academic discipline, play work can be studied to PhD level - and organisations are working to create more playable spaces.

The Play Association Tower Hamlets has worked on estates to try to create areas where children can play safely, not just in designated playgrounds.

Shutting playgrounds

And there are examples of how play areas can survive as an oasis for safe adventure, in otherwise dangerous and constrained settings.

Glamis adventure playground
The number of adventure playgrounds in London has halved

The Glamis Adventure Playground in Shadwell, which has won the London Adventure Playground of the Year, is a multi-coloured play area, surrounded by grey flats and traffic rumbling through east London.

Whatever the worries of the streets outside, in this protected space children up to the age of 15 can run around and make up their own games, using the climbing frames, walkways and quirky equipment, including a landlocked boat.

For inner-city children whose parents are afraid to let them play outside, this is a chance for healthy outdoor play.

But such adventure playgrounds have been in decline - halved in number since the 1980s.

If play is a serious aspect of children's health and well-being, then we need to take seriously the spaces available for them, says Ms Wilson.

No playground for 'super school'
06 May 07 |  Cambridgeshire
Call for more play in school
05 Jan 06 |  Education
Play areas 'should be more fun'
15 Jun 06 |  Leicestershire

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