Play charities are calling for councils to keep playgrounds open during lockdown, as many are closed due to fears that they encourage people to “congregate and socialise”.
In a letter from Play England to all local authorities in England, several experts who work with children say that playgrounds should stay open “to reduce the catastrophic impact of Covid and lockdown on children’s physical and mental health and wellbeing”.
Stevenage council closed 54 playgrounds last week after a rise in cases in the area, including among children and young people. Jim McManus, director of public health at Hertfordshire county council, said: “Nobody wants to do this but the virus is circulating so much we don’t have a choice.”
In Colchester, the council shut one of its largest playgrounds, saying that marshals had noted more than 100 people in the space at once. It added that others could also be closed.
In Brighton, council leader Phélim Mac Cafferty said: “We really don’t want to close our playgrounds, but our concern is that as the new strain of the virus is spreading at a worrying speed, they’re becoming unsafe. This is because too many people of all ages are using them to congregate and socialise.”
Anita Grant is chair of Play England and also runs open-access adventure play services in north London. She told the Observer that throughout lockdown children had suffered hugely from loss of play.
“This is an unprecedented time of restriction and control, and we know this will adversely affect children. Play outside in playgrounds may not be risk-free but the much greater risk is the impact of isolation, lack of exercise, loss of socialisation and connection with the external world that could result from the lockdown.
“Children and families already in deprived circumstances will be most impacted if they close.”
She said that while parks offered open space, children benefited specifically from playgrounds. “Children in spaces free from adult restrictions are able to try things out, have a sense of agency and work things out for themselves. The rules say that children’s playgrounds are allowed – we should be helping people to use them.”
In Brighton, Michael Maroney, a parent of two boys aged 10 and 12, said playground closures would be most damaging for the poorest families.
“I can get out to the South Downs if playgrounds close but what about children who don’t have that option or who live in high density areas?
“I’m also concerned that it’s draconian to have a collective punishment on children because adults don’t follow the rules. Why not just have someone there to enforce the rules?”
In north London, Waltham Forest council has taken this approach, placing 13 “play safe marshals” in its busiest playgrounds to help families maintain social distance and hand out masks.
Councillor Clyde Loakes, deputy leader and cabinet member for the environment, said: “The situation in Waltham Forest at the moment is very serious – confirmed cases of Covid-19 are rising in our area.
“At the same time, we know that many families may not have access to gardens or outside space. It is so important that these young people have the opportunity to get outside and burn off energy safely while they get some fresh air.”
The same lockdown rules for children and play apply in Wales as in England, but in Scotland children under 12 are exempt from rules on household mixing when outdoors.
Play campaigners say the debate over playgrounds highlights a wider issue – the lack of attention given to the needs of children in lockdown guidelines on leaving the house.
Alice Ferguson, director of Playing Out, said the government had repeatedly failed to assure families that play was a reason to leave the house.
“We have been calling for a clear message from government that, for children, play is ‘exercise’ and therefore a ‘reasonable excuse’ to be outside. Without this, there is a real danger of too many children being stuck indoors and their mental and physical health suffering still further.”
Leanne, who lives in Hampshire with her two children aged eight and four, believes that playgrounds offer important exercise for children.
“My eldest child has autism, and as a family we need this place for her to climb, jump and spin. We are told that adults can go for a 5km run but what can children do? My four-year- old can’t ride a bike so we can’t do that as family exercise together. The playground is the solution to a lot of problems.”
She says she is conscious of being safe. “We are sensible, we use hand gel, we go when it’s quiet, I don’t see people being reckless.”
She believes that playgrounds offer specific ways for children to develop healthily. “I’ve noticed that young children I know seem more nervous. They haven’t had as much chance to climb high or swing around over the past year. If we stop them doing this for even longer, it will be difficult to help them recover. Many are left out of school now. Are they supposed to just sit at home ? This is a whole group of people we just aren’t thinking about.”