Has the lack of outdoor play and learning due to COVID-19 spread beyond schools?

29 March 2021

In our first focus group report we looked at the impact that the removal of outdoor learning and play time has had on children. In particular we asked whether the impact of COVID-19 goes beyond the classroom? What role has the closure of public playgrounds had on children’s fitness levels and wellbeing?


In January 2021 Stevenage council closed 54 playgrounds after a rise in cases of COVID-19 in the area, including among children and young people. In Colchester, the council shut one of its largest playgrounds, saying that marshals had noted more than 100 people in the space at once. It added that others could also be closed. In Brighton, council leader Phélim Mac Cafferty said: “We really don’t want to close our playgrounds, but our concern is that as the new strain of the virus is spreading at a worrying speed, they’re becoming unsafe. This is because too many people of all ages are using them to congregate and socialise.”


In response, in a letter from Play England to all local authorities in England, several experts who work with children said that playgrounds should stay open “to reduce the catastrophic impact of Covid and lockdown on children’s physical and mental health and wellbeing”.


Anita Grant is chair of Play England said:


“This is an unprecedented time of restriction and control, and we know this will adversely affect children. Playing outside in playgrounds may not be risk-free but the much greater risk is the impact of isolation, lack of exercise, loss of socialisation and connection with the external world that could result from the lockdown.


“Children and families already in deprived circumstances will be most impacted if they close.”


Mark Hardy, chair of the Association of Play Industries said:


“The vast majority of children in the UK live in urban areas and so playgrounds are an essential public service. For millions of children, free-to-access public playgrounds are their only chance to play outdoors.”


As a result of this uproar No 10 was forced, eventually, to confirm that all children could use playgrounds, not just those without gardens. Yet, doctors and public health experts have continued to urge the government to relax the restrictions on play, warning that children are failing to “thrive and grow” without social interaction.


“Children need children...”


said Sunil Bhopal, a paediatrician and lecturer in child health in Newcastle.


“Is stopping them playing together really necessary to control this pandemic? We are seeing sadness and distress. If we want children to grow, develop and thrive they have to be able to play and … interact with each other.”


In January 2021, and perhaps in response to playground closers, Sport England published its latest Active Lives Children and Young People Survey. It showed that, across the UK, the number of children and young people who were physically active fell during the 2019/20 academic year in England, as first storms and then the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic restricted the type of activities available. According to the survey only 44.9% of children and young people (3.2 million) met the Chief Medical Officer guidelines of taking part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more a day.


We talked to a number of school teachers about the impact that COVID-19 has had on their children in terms of fitness, wellbeing and learning, specifically looking at the role of outdoor play and learning. To find out more about what they had to say, click here.

Back to News