School playing fields are vital for children’s emotional wellbeing and mental health

Over the past few weeks, the nation has been swept up in the excitement and success of the Olympics, not least due to the amazing and inspirational achievements of our own athletes.

Many are already talking of the ‘legacy’ of the Olympics and the importance of utilising the enthusiasm about the Games to encourage future generations to take up sports.

However, this comes at odds with news reports over the past week which suggest that the Government is agreeing to proposals of playing fields and playgrounds across Great Britain being sold off, restricting our young people’s choices for play and exercise outside. An article in The Telegraph on Tuesday 14th August stated that ‘Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has approved the sale of more than 20 school playing fields since the last General Election’. This included ’6 tennis courts and a football pitch’ from just one South London school. However, today it was suggested that this figure was inaccurate and in fact 30 playing fields had been sold.

This, alongside the move to scrap compulsory targets for how much sport should be played in schools could have a significant impact on the physical health of our children, but also on their emotional well-being and emotional resilience.

The impact on children and young people of suitable sports facilities, and the limited time to use these, cannot be underestimated. Most people are aware of the growing obesity problem in Great Britain. A study showed that 17% of boys and 15% of girls aged 2-15 were classed as obese, and 31% of boys and 29% of girls were classed as either overweight or obese’ (Health Survey for England 2010).

However, it is their emotional wellbeing and mental health which may be the true cost. A growing number of children and young people are developing mental health problems. The ‘A Good Childhood’ Inquiry (2009) found that our children are suffering an ‘epidemic of mental illness, with significant increases between 1974 and 1999 in the number of children suffering from conduct, behavioural and emotional problems’. This figure could be influenced by the move away from outdoor play and sport to indoor activities such as playing computer games and watching television. A report by the National Trust, ‘Natural Childhood’ (2012), states that children are suffering from a ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ due to the lack of time spent playing outdoors. The report suggests that ‘greater physical activity promotes better mental health, and a sedentary childhood leads to more mental health problems’.

It seems that as issues with mental health and emotional wellbeing are becoming more common place, we are taking away the very things we know can help them build resilience and lead mentally healthier lives – playing outdoors and participating in sports.

The idea that exercise can have positive effects on treating people with mental health issues is widely accepted. ‘Up and Running’ (2005) a report by the Mental Health Foundation shows the link between exercise and its impact on treating depression. The report shows that exercise has the following advantages over anti-depressants as a treatment for depression:

  • It is cost effective
  • It is readily available
  • There are co-incidental benefits such as an improvement in self-esteem and physical appearance and no unpleasant side effects
  • It is a sustainable recovery choice
  • It promotes social inclusion and is a ‘normalising’ experience
  • It is popular
  • These reports show the importance of having access to outdoor spaces and how they help our children and young people develop, learn and lead healthier lives, both mentally and physically. We would urge those in Government to consider the long term effect on our young people if they are not given access to these vital tools to their emotional wellbeing.