The decline of outdoor parks with playgrounds linked to child health problems

Boys getting outdoors to their local parks and playgrounds
The decline of outdoor parks with playgrounds linked to child health problems
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Do you remember back in the day (around twenty to thirty years ago) when smartphones and tablets didn’t exist and the only way to keep you occupied during the summer was to knock for your friends or search for them at the local park or playground?

Do you remember ever being indoors during the summer holidays, only heading back home in time for tea, which would generally be at around 5 pm and then before you knew it, it was bedtime?

It was such a magical time, wasn’t it!

Fast forward to the present day and life has changed drastically. We are now living deep in the throes of the digital age, so instead of knocking on your friends’ door to find out whether they’re in, you can now send a WhatsApp message or slide into their DM’s (an Instagram reference). And, instead of searching for them at the local park or playground, you can now stalk them on social media or call them to find out where they are. Now you don’t even need to leave your couch to occupy yourself. You can play a game on the smartphone/console or watch a Netflix show on the tablet. And, you have no idea what time it is because you haven’t been out all day.

Welcome to our kids’ lives. Frankly, I find it depressing.

With an average of 18.6 hours spent on screens as opposed to 10.7 hours played outside each week[1], this new world is causing an epidemic of obesity, mental health and sleep problems in our children. Children are simply not getting enough outdoor activity to counteract this new form of indoor living where screens take up a predominant amount of their time every day. In America, five to eight times as many high school and college students have been diagnosed with major depression or anxiety disorder as fifty years ago.[2]

But, if the kids are spending most of their time indoors, who are using the parks and playgrounds?

In 2016 the Association of Play Industries (API)[3] researched the state of England’s parks and playgrounds and discovered that during 2014/15 and 2015/16 local authorities across England closed down 214 children’s playgrounds with plans to close a further 234.

That’s not all.

  • In 2016/17 local authorities closed another 63 playgrounds and in 2017/18 a further 70 were closed. That brings the total to 347 playgrounds across England since 2014!
  • There will be a decrease in spending on playgrounds of over £13 million each year on average across England
  • By 2020/21 there will have been a decrease in spending on play facilities by almost half! (44%) – that’s around £25 million

API know how fundamental play is for children and how necessary it is for natural health development, not just for burning calories, but for nourishing the mind and soul as well. So, inevitably this rapid decline in playgrounds is having a counterproductive effect on our children and taking away vital active play opportunities, i.e. play areas or parks with playground features, which is what is leading the rise (along with increased screen time) in obesity, mental health and sleep problems.

“Something we all took for granted – safe, local and free spaces in which to play – is disappearing. Our latest research shows a very worrying picture indeed, and unless action is taken now, it seems we are in danger of losing playgrounds. Let’s not forget that when a playground is neglected and closed, it is often lost forever.”

Mark Hardy, API Chair

Knowing that there is a link between the rapid decline of outdoor parks with playgrounds and children’s health problems, API took it further and commissioned Mumsnet – the UK’s biggest website for parents – to survey 1,111 parents with children aged between two and twelve years old to find out what they thought. The results are even more harrowing than you think!

It turns out that 72% of parents with children who suffer health issues like obesity agree that lack of outdoor play facilities in their area has played a role in their children’s problems. And, over a quarter of parents who have children with mental health problems also believed this was down to the lack of parks and playgrounds. The shortage of play facilities also plays a part in sleep problems says 26% of parents who were surveyed.

“Most of the parents surveyed say that playgrounds are vital for getting children outdoors and active again. The overwhelming majority of UK children live in urban areas. For these children, and particularly those in the most disadvantaged areas, public playgrounds are their only chance for play.”

Mark Hardy, API Chair
API Play Must Stay campaign

Play Must Stay Campaign

API created a campaign called #PlayMustStay, which calls for urgent investment in playgrounds before they disappear forever. And as this is a national crisis that affects us all, the decrease in spending on play facilities will end up costing the taxpayer more money in the long term due to the significant impact on children’s physical and mental health. In short, if we cut outdoor play now to save money, we will end up paying more in medical costs later.

So, are the local authorities cutting their nose off to spite their faces?

“If we continue with the rate of decline, outdoor playgrounds will become out of reach for the majority of children, which will make for a duller, less healthy childhood for generations to come… The government needs to respond urgently to this latest data.”

Labour MP Chris Leslie

The Mail on Sunday further investigated this decline in playgrounds and found that nearly two playgrounds a week fall victim to neglect, vandalism and property developers. So they created their own campaign, ‘Save our Parks’ which has been attracting lots of support from leading political figures and members of the public who are now endorsing the demand for new rules to be put in place to protect council-run parkland.

“This comes at a time when we have the least physically active generation of children ever when our focus should be in encouraging our children to play out, not less.”

Anne Longfield, The Children’s Commissioner.

So, what can we do now?

API’s Play Must Stay campaign launched on 4 August 2019 and quickly gained traction amongst parents and leading figures in the industry who are now standing up against local authorities to halt closing down our local parks and playgrounds.

“Parks are the beating heart of communities, and I am clear they should be protected. We have set up an action group to develop practical solutions to the issues facing our parks.”

Communities Secretary James Brokenshire

I joined the campaign with my two boys aged seven and eight years old and set up a summer challenge to keep them outdoors and off the screens. We frequented as many of our local parks and playgrounds as we could muster, all while I was heavily pregnant. I won’t lie, I was worried – nay, petrified – at how I was going to entertain the boys during the summer, especially as I am unable to move as fast as the boys desire, but we did it (with a bit of help from football camp and our beautiful local parks and playgrounds). I documented our journey via social media, which you can find on Instagram under the highlight ‘#PlayMustStay’.

Our summer journey outdoors

Boy playing football outside

We headed out early and came back late almost every day during summer and after just a few short days, our evenings had transformed from a constant uphill battle to get them to bed before 9 pm to calm dinners, FAR less screen time and bed by 8 pm, with little to no tantrums. I never thought I could tire my kids out, but a combination of football camp, soft play during the rainy days and visiting our local parks with playgrounds resulted in much more emotionally stable children with exhausted energy that made them feel more at ease with themselves. They also requested the TV and phone far less and even though it was harder for me to find the will to get out of the house, I was paid in dividends later on in the evening. I got my ‘me’ time back, so I could rest and do what I wanted for a change without having to deal with moaning children coming down every five minutes, and then finally passing out from exhaustion. Of course, I know my me time will expire in a few short weeks when the little one arrives, but I now know that I can handle the older two better to make life with three a little easier at least (I hope– famous last words!)

Boys playing on the swings

You can view the full video over on YouTube of the API campaign and our summer journey through our local parks with playgrounds

Where did we go?

Phillimore Park, Radlett

We live in Radlett Hertfordshire, so we are blessed with lots of beautiful parks and playgrounds in the area. Unfortunately, all but one require a car to get to from where we live, but as we had a car, we could enjoy them all.

Our most local park was Phillimore Park, which was about 20 minutes walk away.

Phillimore Park is one of our favourite parks as it has a bit of everything for little ones and older children. The park splits into two, a large field which has adjacent tennis courts and a ‘cage’ which has a basketball hoop and football goals. The other part has a playground with a small play area for younger kids and for older ones you have a range of play equipment like a zip wire, climbing frames and other standard play equipment, like swings and roundabouts. There’s an independent café so the whole family can enjoy a lovely day out. We visited this park the most during the school holidays, and have stayed there until quite late, around 7.30pm, so I’m not sure when the opening times are if there are any for this park.

Aldenham Country Park, Aldenham

Me and my three siblings used to head to Aldenham Country Park all the time when we were kids so it’s great that we can offer my boys the same experience. Aldenham Country Park is fantastic! There are lots of different areas to enjoy – you have a challenging obstacle course (perfect for kids who love climbing) with adjacent adventure playgrounds, a farmyard where you can feed the birds and buy fresh produce and a fantastic nature trail walk which is about 10km, with a truly breathtaking view all around. You finish up by the lake where you can see a family of geese and poultry going about their business as you head back to the car park and finish up with delicious ice cream. We go throughout the year, even in the colder months because its nature is stunning.

Harwoods Adventurous Playground, Watford

This summer was the first time we had visited Harwoods Adventurous Playground, and even though it was challenging to get to the park without a car (and the car park is far away), it is truly a magnificent play world for kids. There is a long wooden adventure obstacle course which will keep the kids busy for hours, as they travel around the park and a separate football/basketball court, as well as lots of seating areas for parents and pregnant women like me!

Verulamium Park, St. Albans

Verulamium Park is enormous, with lots of different sections where kids can go wild. There is a paddling pool, various play areas, an adventure playground and even a splash park! Over the summer we also saw a bouncy castle and lots of little cafes – so something for kids of all ages!

Shenley Park, Shenley

Shenley Park is our second local park, but we have to walk about 6km to get there on foot. It’s a lovely area with a small playground, a beautiful nature trail, an Orchard and a café where you can buy fresh apple juice and delicious food!

Canons Park, Stanmore

Canons Park is our most treasured park because my siblings and I grew up down the road (literally minutes away from the park) so we would go very regularly with our dad when he would come home from work. We now do the same with our kids, and since we were young a new playground has been installed, with lots and lots of different play areas for kids to burn their energy. You also have lots of walking trails, open greenery and a flower garden with a lake so that you can spot water wildlife and beautiful flowers – it is a truly wonderful park to visit.

But, for some parents, parks and playgrounds are not accessible

However, it’s not always so simple to visit your local park. As mentioned above, our closest park is a twenty-minute walk away (longer now that I am waddling) and so this means I can’t always take them to the park even though I wish I could. And even though we have a car, parking can be difficult, especially during peak times. But for some parents who don’t have a car or can’t get to a park, how do they burn their kids’ energy?

#PlayMustStay - 9 out of 10 parents not close to the playground said that having access would make their child play outside more

If parks and playgrounds are not accessible then many parents don’t have the chance to take their kids out, so their kids end up staying indoors. And to cut a break and have some peace (or get things done), sometimes the screen is all that’s available for them. Half of the parents surveyed said that their child prefers screen time over other activities and parents found it difficult to persuade their child to leave the screen.

Marked decline in outdoor play by the age of 8 - 70% of 10 - 12 year olds prefer screens over outdoor play - API Play

It’s important to express that I am in no way judging any parent for any choices you make because we are all in the same boat. Life has thrown us a myriad of tasks, and we have to be all things to all people at all times. We’re homemakers, cooks, workers, friends, confidants and project managers so sometimes it’s just easier to take a few minutes to a few hours break. And so we should support and not judge each other for the choices we make.

I spoke about this very issue with Eddie Nestor on BBC Radio London, which you can check out below:

What happens from here on?

We need to urge the local authorities to stop closing down parks and playgrounds and to increase their spend, so kids can have their unstructured outdoor play, which proves to be more beneficial physically and mentally than structured play. We need investment in public playgrounds before they disappear for good and we need an appointment of a dedicated Cabinet Minister for Children & Young People to lobby for investment in playgrounds (via the Children First Alliance).

Playgrounds are not a luxury – they are a unique and essential resource for the benefit of our children’s physical and mental health. If a playground is gone, it’s gone for good, and so a relatively modest government investment now will pay huge dividends for our future generation.

I spoke about the dangers of closing down parks and playgrounds on BBC Radio London with Jason Rosam, please check out the clip below:

And later that day I spoke with Phil Kennedy on BBC Berkshire about the need for more parks and playgrounds and visiting our local parks helped me handle the kids during the summer holidays while being heavily pregnant.

So, please get on the back of this campaign. Get onto social media using the hashtag #PlayMustStay and document your own journey with your kids.

Do you have physically and mentally happy children who visit their local park/playground every day? Or are you in an area where parks and playgrounds are not on your doorstep or your local park or playground has been closed down? Let’s get this campaign trending on social media, so the government listen up and do something about the future of our children’s health!

Click here for the latest coverage on the #PlayMustStay campaign in the media.

Here is the video again of our summer journey:


[1] Based on Mumsnet’s survey of 1,111 parents related to 10 – 12-year-olds who preferred to be indoors on a screen rather than playing outside

[2] The Decline of Play and Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders, https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/freedom-learn/201001/the-decline-play-and-rise-in-childrens-mental-disorders

[3] The Association of Play Industries API the lead trade body who promotes best practice and high-quality play provision within the play industry. API operated under the umbrella of the Federation of Sports and Play Associations in the UK’s sport and play industries – www.sportsandplay.com

*This post and video was sponsored by API Play but all thoughts and opinions are 100% my own*

Leyla Preston (595 Posts)

Leyla Preston is the owner and Editor of Motherhood Diaries global magazine for parents. Leyla is a busy mother of two even busier boys; Aron, 8, and Aidan, 7. When Leyla isn’t feeding, managing a gazillion tasks or cleaning the infinite mess at home, she is busy working on this magazine and a new cooking channel coming very soon – no rest for the wicked!You can follow Leyla on Twitter (@M_Diaries) or join the busy Motherhood Diaries Facebook group where all mums get together and share stories and solutions with one another: https://www.facebook.com//groups/motherhooddiaries/