Guest post by Harriet Menter, Scotswood Natural Community Garden
Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
“States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child”
Recent cuts in local authority spending on parks will have a detrimental effect on all children in urban areas, especially those from economically deprived backgrounds. Parks provide unique opportunities for children, young people and families to spend time outdoors, in contact with the natural environment. There is an abundance of evidence on the benefits of outdoor play and contact with nature; and just being outdoors, for people of all ages. Research shows it has a positive impact on physical health, mental health and self-esteem.
“If you watch a child playing outside they’re just doing so many physical tasks – they run for hours, dig, climb. If you told them to do it they wouldn’t, but they want to because they’re playing. You won’t get that level of physical activity with anything else”. Penny Wilson, head of play at Play Association Tower Hamlets quoted here
The health benefits and positive lifestyle choices developed are also shown to carry through into children’s adult lives.
Parks also provide a fantastic environment for children to learn through play providing huge developmental and educational benefits for children. The opportunities for different types of self-led learning are endless, and the enthusiasm children have for nature, adventure, and outdoor play creates the kind of self- motivated learners teachers and policymakers dream of. A group of children involved in making a den, will be developing their communication skills as they share their ideas and divvy up tasks, doing maths as they measure and estimate the amount of sticks/leaves/mud they may need, science as they experiment with how much weight those roof beams can hold, storytelling as they invent a narrative of pirates/soldiers/superheroes around their den, art as they decorate their den with mud, flowers etc. They are also developing traits that will make them more effective learners in the school environment: resilience when the first idea fails or the roof beams break and they move on to the second, third or fourth design, problem solving skills, perseverance and confidence in using their own initiative. They are also having huge amounts of fun.
Sadly, children nowadays have much less contact with nature and all its benefits than previous generations. A recent survey by Natural England found that “fewer than a quarter of children regularly use their local “patch of nature”, compared to over half of all adults when they were children, and fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild spaces; compared to almost half a generation ago.
A recent report by the National Trust entitled Natural Childhood discusses the benefits of outdoor play for children and the disconnection between children and nature and aims to start a national debate on how to re-engage children with nature.
For my money the answer is urban parks, city farms and community gardens. National Trust properties, English Heritage sites and the like tend to be difficult to reach on public transport, too expensive for many families, and definitely, albeit unintentionally, seem to make people from less socio-economically privileged backgrounds feel out of place. Parks on the other hand are free, often on people’s doorsteps or easily accessible by public transport. Importantly, people from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds feel comfortable accessing these opportunities. If we want to make sure all the benefits of outdoor play that we have mentioned above, don’t become yet another advantage that poorer children miss out on, we have to continue to support our urban parks.
We know that parks and green spaces are hugely important to children from poorer backgrounds. In a recent photography project by Children North East, children identified how important the physical and natural environment is to their lives, and highlighted with their photography the dereliction of these play spaces. After housing, the environemnt and ‘places to go’ were the most important issues for the young people who took part in the project. One young person commented ‘you can’t play in the park cos it’s full of rubbish then you play in the streets and adults get annoyed.’ The report also notes that
‘the majority of photographs (in the places to go theme) were of parks, both play parks and open green spaces. This was clearly where most children and young people spend their free time. They were free to access and most often within walking distance.’ (my emphasis)
During focus group discussions in Gateshead, young people said that the parks were one of the best things about living in Gateshead. However given the pressures to cut spending on the park’s teams and environmental services, I wonder if the answer would be the same in ten years’ time? Even if the reduced maintainence teams manage to maintain the parks to a decent level, the loss of the whole education teams in some areas means that for those children whose parents do not have the time, resources or confidence to support them in making full use of the parks, these health and developmental opportunities are reduced. Having rangers, education officers and other council officers working in the parks is essential to ensure all children have access to the benefits parks can offer.
The scale of cuts to parks, especially in terms of park rangers who provide a presence in the parks, mean we face a return to the 80’s when parks were unloved, underused, and perceived by many as unsafe places to go. Those with the means can still get their children a fix of nature by driving out to one of the beautiful National Trust properties in the region. But what about others?
For me, the most important thing about parks is that they are one of the few democratic spaces we have left in our cities. Where else can you find people of all ages and backgrounds sharing space? As the rest of our cities become more segregated, with school choice leading to an increase in class based segregation in schools, parks become even more important as true democratic spaces, where old and young, rich and poor, black and white share space and time. Watching my kids play in Saltwell Park recently, I wondered where else you would find such as mix of people from different ethnic, demographic and socio-economic backgrounds sharing space. For communities to get on well together, to develop trust and understanding, we must have these opportunities to spend time together.
Scotswood Natural Community Garden
All of the photographs used in the post were taken by young people as part of the Children NE project.