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.