Our relationship with physical activity starts at such a young age that it is vital that we all—schools, families, society—play our part to get it right for children and young people. The recent furore over the selling off of school playing fields, at a time when Olympians were delighting the nation with their elite achievements, has brought the issue to the fore. What does it say about our society and our prospects for future sporting success if children don’t have the space they need to play competitive sport?
We need safe green spaces for much more than instilling team spirit in our youngsters. Sport is not the only physical activity. Competitive sport, by its very nature, means that some children will thrive, while others will try to avoid it at all costs.
Therefore, it can only be a good thing if non-competitive activity gets children active and enjoying exercise. Physical activity is far more important than sports alone in tackling obesity. Active travel to school (i.e. walking or cycling) is important both for childhood itself and for instilling the habits of a lifetime.
Many forms of physical activity have nothing to do with “sport.” These might include dance, drama, learning to cycle, throwing bean bags to help with counting, hopscotch, skipping, and play in general.
Evidence does show that if you give a child some space then they will run around and play. They don’t need organised sport as such, but they do need space. If this space is “green” (i.e a park or playing field) then it is even better for mental health and wellbeing.
There does not seem to be an inverse relationship between Team GB’s medal tally and nation GB’s obesity score. In fact as one goes up, so does the other. As far as we know, there is no evidence that links an increase in national elite sport success with a decrease in a population’s obesity.
As public health professionals, our priority is not to give children the ability and facilities to become elite sports people, so much as it is to improve everyone’s health. A key part of that is giving people a healthy environment where they feel safe and want to exercise.
Selling off sports fields to developers could be equated to finding a buyer for the family silver—but it may not be, so long as equivalent space and facilities are provided with the revenue generated.
Outdoor space matters in public health terms not just because of the current interest in giving the next generation of elite athletes the space to play competitive sport on good quality pitches. It’s more that kids need free space, preferably green, to play in for their development, as well as physical and mental health.
We all know there are tough decisions to be made in all public service budgets, including schools. Let’s make sure that our children and young people have the outdoor space they need now, so that we are not increasing the costs we will all have to pay to tackle obesity in the future.
Edmund Jessop is the vice president of the Faculty of Public Health.