This month saw one of the first schools make use of the National Lottery funding through Sport England’s Primary Spaces. The £18 million fund was set aside to help schools renovate their playgrounds and outdoor play areas, with priority given to those schools who currently have little or no outside space available. Woodhill Primary School in Woolwich has put the money towards the creation of a new multi-use activity area, transforming its playground into a useful space for activities such sport and PE. The facilities include a traversing bouldering wall, a net and hoop, and new surfacing and court markings. Previously, classes had been taught in a shared outdoor space on rotation. The new additions will mean that every student is now able to take part in at least two hours per week of high quality physical education.
Having the opportunity to play sport and be physically active is vital in inspiring more children to participate in sport outside of school hours and later on in life. Activity-filled playgrounds inspire young students to explore their environment and promote creativity whilst, increasing activity levels; important to the early development of what will hopefully be a life-long habit of physical activity. Yet many children are still missing out, with a recent consultation by Sport England revealing that many schools lack the facilities to provide their students with adequate physical education sessions or areas for general play.
Play can be described as freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated activity, and is crucial to a child’s overall development both physically and socially. It can greatly affect the personality and abilities of a child, and influence the type of person they become later on in life. The new Primary Spaces funding cannot come at a better time, as an investigation this year by TES showed that an increasing number of primary schools in England have been under stress to reduce the amount of outdoor space in response to pressure to make room for a fast growing student body. The crisis over school places has led to many councils building over areas once designated for playgrounds and playing fields. Government figures published in April showed that 211,930 primary school places were created between 2009 and 2012, and another 299,190 are to be made available by the start of the 2016 academic year. And this trend is likely to continue in the near future. Financial support, such as that offered by the Primary Spaces fund, will be essential in combating the detrimental knock-on effects to physical education and activity. The £30,000 available to all successful schools will help maintain student access to a suitable outside space during a time of unprecedented expansion.
Physical activity is influenced by many factors, with the environment playing a significant role. As children spend a large amount of time in education, school is a consequential setting for instilling a sense of importance for physical activity at a young age. At school there are multiple opportunities for exercise: during scheduled lessons, break times and after school clubs. As students spend a higher total number of hours during break time than they do in dedicated PE lessons over the course of a week, having sufficient space to engage in free play is even more important. Recent studies in this area have found a significant link between children’s physical activity and the amount of available play equipment and outside space. A corresponding study by Parish et al (2013) found that playground markings and games equipment significantly increase a child’s activity level, highlighting that the quality of the play area is also important.
The primary school playground therefore offers an important opportunity to intervene in the improvement of a child’s health. Research shows a clear positive correlation between opportunities for physical play and improvements in both physiological and psychological health. Despite a growing awareness of these benefits, childhood physical activity levels appear to be on the decline, with many children falling far below the guideline minimum amount of exercise of one and a half hours per day (or one hour for school aged children). As a result, the promotion of regular physical activity for children has become a priority for the public health system, and any additional financial support for this goal can only be a welcome move.