Today’s children are the least active generation ever. Just 1 in 4 boys and 1 in 5 girls in England do the recommended 60 minutes of activity each day. At the same time, figures from Ofcom tell us that children between the ages of 5 and 15 spend nearly 2 hours a day online during the week and nearly hours a day at the weekend. Playing out used to be a feature of every child’s day, children now spend just four hours a week playing out.3 This is part of a wider trend. The area around the home where children are allowed to go unsupervised has shrunk by 90% since the 70s. And the problem now gets worse during school holidays. Research from ukactive suggests that children return to school in September less fit than when they broke up in July, with children from poorer areas worse affected.
Why play and physical activity is so important
Play and physical activity can play a vital role supporting children’s well-being and development. Whether it is going down to the park with friends or family, playing in a sports team or attending a holiday club – being active delivers important benefits to children and young people. Evidence has linked play and physical activity to:
- Improved mental health and wellbeing. Children who play are happier and more confident. They are better at dealing with stress and forming healthy attachments.
- Better physical health. Playing and being active supports children’s physiological, cardiovascular and motor skills development. It is also crucial in enabling children to maintain a healthy weight – now, as children, and in the future, as adults.
- Cognitive development. Play teaches children to use language effectively and solve problems. It also improves memory and concentration.
- Social development. Through play and physical activity, children learn how to negotiate, cooperate and see things from other people’s points of view.
Furthermore, although the evidence base is not as developed, research suggests that children’s play benefits the wider family and community too, through improved family wellbeing, reduced anti-social behaviour and vandalism, and even increased volunteering and social action.
Recognising the importance of physical activity to child development, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) recommends that children and young people aged 5-18 years old should do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. The government’s Sporting Future strategy also emphasises the benefits of being active, and the need to promote activity in childhood in order to ensure people grow up to be active as adults.
What is the problem?
The benefits of play and physical activity to children are undeniable. Yet the proportion of children being active is extremely low. In 2015, just 1 in 4 (23%) boys and 1 in 5 (20%) girls aged 5-15 met the CMO’s recommendation of 60 minutes of activity each day.
Children who don't get the opportunity to play and to be active may be putting their social, emotional, intellectual and physical development at risk. The impact on mental health is particularly concerning given that children’s mental health is reaching crisis point: it is the most frequently raised issue with the Children’s Commissioner’s Office and one in 10 children have a mental health disorder. A major study published later this year is likely to show that the number of children with mental health conditions has increased even further.
Play is critical in helping children to process their emotions, live out their anxieties and build friendships and resilience. The fact that play therapy is frequently used to treat children who have experienced complex trauma, such as violence and conflict in war zones, is testament to the power of play and its critical role in supporting mental health.
Children we speak to often link their anxiety and concerns to their use of social media, which can be all-consuming – and yet they rely on social media to pass the time given a lack of opportunities to engage with more stimulating activities. The latest figures from Ofcom show that children aged 5 to 15 spend an average of nearly 2 hours a day online during the week, and nearly 3 hours a day at the weekend. And some children are online for much longer: over 150,000 children aged 12 to 15 spend over eight hours a day online at the weekend.
Children’s social skills are also honed through play. Equipping children with the skills to negotiate and draw boundaries, e.g. through role play, may help prevent unhelpful peer relationships from forming, such as those in gangs.
Girls are at particular risk of inactivity: boys aged 8-15 spend on average 40 minutes per day on sports activities compared with just 25 minutes per day for girls. Furthermore, only one in five parents of a child with a disability or long-term health condition report their child belonging to a sports club. And the bad news is that it doesn't get better as children grow up – inactivity increases with age. In 2015, 5% of girls and boys aged 2-4 were sedentary for 6 hours or more per day on weekdays, compared to 18% of boys aged 13-15 and 23% of girls aged 13-15.
The Government committed £2 million to enable disadvantaged children to take part in enriching activities over this year’s summer holidays and to provide them with healthy meals. Investment like this is much needed. Recent research from ukactive has shown that children are less active during the summer holidays than they are at school. After six weeks of being free of their desks, we should see children returning to school in September fitter and healthier than when they left in July – but the opposite is true, with 9-10 year olds returning to school in September less fit than when they left in the summer. Most concerning is that the effect is most pronounced for pupils from deprived areas.
Holiday Hunger Many children face a double-whammy during the summer: lack of activity and lack of proper food. There are an estimated 1.8 million children in England experiencing some level of food poverty, 1.1 million of whom rely on free school meals during the school term, but for whom parents have to provide meals during the holidays. A report from the APPG on hunger estimates that the loss of free school meals adds up to £40 per week to parents' outgoings. The report highlights the experiences of children who either go without food, or rely on cheap, unhealthy junk food during the holidays. This is supported by research from the Trussell Trust which highlights surges in demand for emergency food parcels during school holidays as families struggle to provide regular meals for their children during the 170 days a year that children are out of school.
For these children, their health is being compromised both by their lack of activity and poor nutrition, and in some cases even malnutrition, leading to a whole range of poor health outcomes which will often affect their immediate wellbeing and long-term prospects. But when parents are struggling to put meals on the table, it is not a surprise that play and holiday activities are often seen as an unaffordable luxury.