26 April 2019

Play as a powerful motivator

Both national and local governments are recognising the importance of open spaces, parks and the natural landscape in promoting and enabling a healthy lifestyle in combatting obesity. A mental health crisis is also on the horizon and several indicators identify greater access to green spaces and nature as key in managing this.

The convenience of a modern lifestyle has enabled a sedentary lifestyle, with few tasks requiring us to even leave our seats, never mind venture outdoors. However, somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the personal enrichment outdoor space offers. It is not just about burning calories and building muscle tone, it is about making us happier, healthier, less stressed human beings. The onus is with us all to ensure the children of today go on to recognise the value of the great outdoors in their own future health and wellbeing.

The connection between play and wellbeing is increasingly being championed by practitioners. A prime example is Northstowe, one of NHS England Healthy New Town demonstrator sites. Its Phase 2 Healthy Living and Youth Play Strategy was created by New Homes with Chris Blandford Associates to support the creation of Northstowe, a new town on the outskirts of Cambridge. This framework document reiterates the positive correlation between play and increased physical activity.

It also identifies the relationship with mental health and well-being: ‘There are strong arguments for the mental health benefits of outdoor play.’

The Mental Health Foundation states on its website that: ‘Having time and the freedom to play, indoors and outdoors helps to promote good mental health. Play has a significant role in fostering resilience through giving children managed opportunities to take risks.’

The creation of the play area also has an indirect effect which potentially impacts on happier adults, helping create informal community hubs and building links within the community, nurturing relationships and developing effective support networks.

A dedicated play area should provide opportunities for both formal and informal play, but equally important is the provision of free spaces; playing fields, meadows, woodlands etc, which can deliver incidental play, one of the most inclusive elements of play, appealing to toddlers through to teenagers. The result of the Northstowe planning strategy will see a variety of doorstep and destination play spaces, as well as opportunities for play interventions to add interest to common walking routes.

The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) are a national charity which seeks to provide the knowledge and support to developers to create better, more sustainable communities. They have long recognised the value of dedicated play spaces in creating more cohesive and happy communities. Their research identifies that: ‘People who have good access to green space are 24% more likely to be active and 58% of children aged 4-16 years said “playing outside near home” was their preferred activity, with 62% stating they would like to do it more.’

In order to help developers and planners in creating open spaces that work effectively, the TCPA has included play as one of the key elements within their framework of healthy planning and developments.

Michael Chang, project and policy manager at TCPA says: ‘When creating new communities developers will often be required to provide areas of green open spaces. But it will not often be about quantity but about how best to put them to good use. When we support planning officers in recognising what makes good play, we often need to engage with the local public health, parks and environment teams to better provide for spaces that local people want while making the best use of the natural landscape.

‘We do support adopting industry standards such as those from Play England and Sport England, and encourage planners and developers to adopt a natural approach to play by working with the natural topography.’

In order to help them developers and planners recognise the value of green provision, they have identified some very compelling figures from research. For example green spaces effectively saves the NHS £111,000,000 annually and a play area in close proximity increases the land value by 16%.

The Land Trust is an innovative charity, committed to the long term sustainable management of open space for community benefit. They are passionate about encouraging people of all ages to spend time outdoors and their recent Health For Life project, carried out at Countess of Chester Country Park, highlighted the hugely positive impact of spending time in well managed green space.

With reports highlighting that young people are spending less time outdoors than prison inmates, their director of portfolio management, Alan Carter, explains why getting young people outdoors at an early age is so important: ‘The physical and mental health benefits of spending time outdoors are clear and it is vital that young people are developing these positive habits from a very early age. Play is a great way of doing this and is very important as it encourages people to interact with the green space. This interaction is key to what we do; to create successful green spaces you need to instil a sense of ownership, this is developed through active engagement.

‘We like to run our spaces very much in partnership with the community, we take care of the legal ownership so that the communities themselves are free to create the space that their stakeholders need.’

Play is a powerful motivator for encouraging children and young people to engage with green spaces, but it is important that the right approach to play is embedded in order to make the appeal of a play space last beyond the shiny opening ceremony. As opposed to sport, play is freely chosen and without fixed rules and regulations. Some children will choose not to engage in sporting activities, but cues to play are more difficult to resist and for this reason play can be a more inclusive approach to physical provision which can work well alongside more sporting facilities.

‘The ongoing issue with play is supporting communities in recognising what constitutes good play,’ continues Alan. ‘Equipment is only one element; natural play, the landscaping, big stones, fallen trees, logs and timber rounds are all very good for delivering open ended play opportunities. These are excellent in helping children understand risk, an element which is sadly lacking in many designated play areas.

‘We also need to take steps to ensure that play areas are accessible to all, and do not become too commercialised – as this effectively serves as a barrier for large sections of the community.’

There is no doubt that specialist organisations are up to speed on the value of green spaces for the nation’s physical and mental health. We now need to ensure the conversation continues with councils, planners and developers to preserve doorstep access to successful green spaces for generations to come.

Beth Cooper is creative play consultant at Timberplay.

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine

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