School Playgrounds

Playgrounds too soft, mean streets too hard I know you may think it distasteful, but it's time to talk about scabs. Let's all have another seminar about those fascinating crusty objects that used to turn up on our knees. Join me in a trip back to our childhood Elysium, and remember the rapt interest with which we used to look at a graze in the process of healing. First the outer edges would harden, leaving a raw red patch still faintly weeping in the middle. Then the whole thing dries into a miraculous integument, as firm and knobbly as the edges of a bit of cheese on toast. You could tap it. You could stealthily probe its edges, with the connoisseurship of the man from Del Monte, to see if it was ready. Then one day it would all be gone, and we saw the skin underneath, pink and new and whole. The scab experience was a brilliant lesson in biology, and it is in some ways sad that our children these days seem so scab-free. Please don't get me wrong. I am not calling for more of them to have accidents. I am not positively advocating that we encourage our children to fall out of trees or get whanged off roundabouts moving at 200 rpm. But the scabophobic measures we have taken to protect our children have had consequences we could not have intended. Ed Balls yesterday called for children to rediscover the joys of the playground, and the football kickaround. He painted a Brueghelian picture of children swarming to play hopscotch and tag and British bulldog, and though we all share his ambitions he could have been more honest, frankly, about the real reasons for the decline in outdoor play, and the role of government in the disaster. Let us take the surfaces of playgrounds, the ones that used to abrade our knees. Under an EU regulation EN 1176 local authorities are advised not to install playground equipment more than three metres high, and to use soft surfacing on the ground: hence the decline in scabs. To be fair to Brussels, this regulation is not compulsory, but authorities are so terrified of litigation that they slavishly enforce it. The measure does not seem to have made much difference to playground fatalities: there has been roughly one death every three or four years for the past 20 years. But the surface is extremely expensive, costing £7,000 for 100 square metres, and that extra expense has certainly played a part in reducing the overall total of playground space available. According to play expert Tim Gill, who has written a book on the subject, there are now roughly two square metres of public playground space for each child under 12, and that is not enough. So the next time Balls wants to talk sphericals about what the Government is doing to get more children to play outdoors, I suggest he has a couple of long introductory paragraphs about the baleful effect of over-regulation and litigation - followed by a heartfelt apology for everything he has done to encourage them. He should then move on to acknowledge the real reason why parents are so reluctant to let their children play outside, and that is their fear of crime and thuggery - a fear that is not always unreasonable. When I was a child we used to knock around Camden on our bicycles; we used to walk to school and back without even thinking about it; and even though we used to trot off to buy Mr Whippys with a flake, we took so much outdoor exercise that an obese child was a genuine curiosity. We now have a world in which three per cent of young people carry a knife, and 20 per cent of 10-11-year-olds have been assaulted at least once in the past 12 months. Too many parks and play areas are dominated by intimidating gangs, and unless you have taken the trouble to become part of the gang, and to show the requisite levels of bravado and aggression, you may be nervous of playing in the same area. It is a profound and sad change to the quality of children's lives, and there are several plausible explanations. One might cite the revolution in the relationship between adults and children, and the weird terror with which we all seem to regard the younger generation, and the loss of respect in the way they treat adults. There is a chronic shortage on the streets of any adult willing to exert any kind of authority - and that, these days, generally means the police. It does not help that 14 per cent of all police officers' time is spent on patrol, compared to 19.3 per cent on "paperwork"; but until we can find ways of getting more police out there, too much of our public space will be filled with a vague sense of menace. Take that together with over-regulation of playground equipment, and no wonder children are deterred from playing outside. No wonder they are all glued to their blooming PlayStations. They have playgrounds that are at once scary in their inhabitants and tedious in their equipment - and the answer, of course, is to reverse the position. We need to stop the crazy culture of litigation, which has seen local authorities reduce the number of roundabouts they buy because roundabouts are now deemed too dangerous. Teachers and expedition leaders should be protected from civil negligence claims unless they have shown "reckless disregard"; the law should be changed so that there is no obligation on local authorities to warn of an obvious risk (a roundabout goes round, for instance), and we must above all stop these judges from making ludicrous rulings in favour of compensation - and we could do that by insisting, as they make their rulings, that they allow for the benefits to society of encouraging kids to play outside. What we need is less health and safety in the playground, and more safety on the streets, and no more initiatives from Mr Balls until he has got to grips with the real problem.

12 thoughts on “School Playgrounds”

  1. Hi Boris

    Of course there is another and simpler explanation, we all used to wear either short trousers or skirts! Bare knees against playground no contest. Now nearly all the girls and boys wear long trousers.

    Having said that I did hear that children were not allowed to have balls and skipping ropes in the playground anymore, life is not risk free and all children have to learn how to assess the dangers they face. Stopping them from doing so leads to the type of knife culture latter on precisely because they haven’t developed the skills they need to negotiate their way out of trouble.

  2. Well said. Since the change of the head teacher at our kids school, the kids are not to engage in any contact sport or play! no ball games and no snow balling (if they are allowed to go out in the snow).
    At least I know my kids are playing something good by the state of the ripped clothes and good scabs now and then. Get rid of the do-gooders and the Guardian middle pagers and we may save the day.

  3. I wondered why playgrounds seem so small – and underused.

    My children used to dive off the top board at the local swimming pool. Until boards were removed and that pool closed in favour of a shallow one.

    Anyone questioning the bravery and/or bounce of children should watch the Prince Philip cup at the Horse of the Year Show. Or any children’s equestrian event across country. As always, it is the relatively privileged children who are still being challenged physically.

  4. Neighbour’s young child was bored while the adults talked and was shinning up a tree. Three adults (different houses)answered the ‘look at me’ call and said, ‘Great, how high can you go?’ Passing walker looked horrified. Grass underneath and plentiful rescue strategies if required. What’s wrong with encouraging a bit of risk taking?

  5. There is a chronic shortage on the streets of any adult willing to exert any kind of authority – and that, these days, generally means the police.

    Banned from smoking, banned from driving, adults have been turned into children. Of course they cannot exert any authority, now that authority over their own lives has been taken from them.

  6. Bozza! I can’t believe it, I arrive back here after a few days away and find that there are no comments on your essay. You must be feeling very sad, and at Christmas too. Maybe the next person will comment and read the article. One out of two will have to do for me, though. Don’t be put off by the lack of response, I think you show great promise.

  7. Oh! Silly me! You have got comment moderation in operation, and I bet Melissa is away. There are probably lots of comments waiting to be posted, some of them might even be sensible. Would you like me to moderate the comments for you? I will make sure that I am evenhanded and diligent.

    [Hi. There is a comment elsewhere that the site is undergoing heavy refurbishment after the necessary server move and that has been causing some problems for the operators. Bear with us: it’s nearly ready to be released in new form. Keep writing!]

  8. When I was a child in the late sixties and early seventies we would play sports for most of the day. In the six weeks holidays all day long games of cricket and evening games of football were not uncommon. Occasionally someone would get a corky in the face but they just got over it and carried on.

    Nowadays the fields we used to play on are completely abandoned. The only youngsters I see are hanging around the streets looking completely bored. I can’t help wondering why sport has died among the young. The only sport that ever takes place is the supervised and regulated type. Spontaneous sport seems to now be a thing of the past.

    What we have, in effect, is top-down entertainment for kids. They are told what to play, when to play, how to play. The kids have basically lost the will to play. That creative art has gone. The question is how can it be brought back?

  9. While political upheaval is upheaving all around me here in South Africa, it’s so refreshing to read a serious yet entertaining analysis on the British Government’s failings in providing adequate space and opportunity for our children to exercise and the reasons behind it. Great stuff.

  10. To dear Vicus – NOT silly you

    Am here ok. We are hoping to get a rolls royce quality site soon and there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

    Have a wonderful Christmas

  11. 6000 said:While political upheaval is upheaving all around me here in South Africa, it’s so refreshing to read a serious yet entertaining analysis on the British Government’s failings in providing adequate space and opportunity for our children to exercise and the reasons behind it. Great stuff.

    when I returned to UK after living for quite some time in a developing country raged by political turmoil & ruled by cruelty, I kind of had this feeling everyday when hearing political debates in UK – I must reveal that I had a lot of thoughts about how silly all these are! however, after a while I myself felt the luxury of a life in democracy, in becaming whole heartedly engaged in these fervors of being silly!

  12. It was a breath of fresh air to read your ‘School Playgrounds’ comments. Even more refreshing is dissent for the disgusting claims culture that has infected Briton “and we must above all stop these judges from making ludicrous rulings in favour of compensation”

    We all think that because the legislation comes from the continent they are the cause of the problem and have bigger issues than we do. However, it may not be the case. Ten years ago I sat in a business law class as part of an MBA, 80 % of the students were international. When the lecturer started talking about injury claims many students, including continentals, stood up and threatened to leave because they thought lecturer was talking rubbish.

    One of the claim cases discussed a massive payout to a thieving parasitic claimant who was allegedly unable to put the bins out and a few other household chores. At this point in the lecture a student said “I my country the judge would not have given financial compensation for this injury.” We including the lecturer were intrigued and asked what other compensation is there. The student explained that the claimant had no loss of income because the employer continued paying. So the only loss was the household chores therefore, the compensation would be help in the home. The person who caused the injury could either hire someone or go themselves to put the bins out etc…

    The genius of this mechanism would be that all the false injury claims would disappear.

    I love the comments from idlex:-
    Banned from smoking, banned from driving, adults have been turned into children. Of course they cannot exert any authority, now that authority over their own lives has been taken from them.
    I have a manifesto motto for the government. Don’t worry you do not need to live your lives because we will do it for you.

    I find the nanny states control and legislation very concerning. We must take responsibility for our actions and not try blame others.

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