Brighton & Hove City Council’s website says that “Active, outdoor play is an important part of children’s development and health”. If they think this is the case, it seems odd that at the time of writing nearly a quarter of the city’s playgrounds are still closed, leaving children locked out of these vital facilities.
The government announced on 23 June that playgrounds could reopen on 4 July, providing local authorities with two weeks’ notice to prepare play spaces for use. Yet we are now nearly a month from that announcement and many children are still unable to access play spaces – spaces they have not been able to access since March.
As a Hangleton resident, that would include my young child, were we not lucky enough to have a car. Lockdown has been an incredibly difficult time for young children: loss of social opportunities, restrictions to outdoor exercise, limits placed on their ability to play and explore, and all these at an incredibly important time in their physical, mental and emotional development. Their mental health has suffered, possibly more than that of adults as they don’t understand why this is happening. It is a frightening and confusing time.
The difference in my child since the start of lockdown is painfully clear. She used to be a confident, outgoing child who would launch herself into play activities with her peers. Now she has become shy and timid, and when we do go to playgrounds she is nervous about using the equipment at the same time as any other child. As a mother, it is distressing for me to watch.
Which is why I was so disappointed in the council’s attitude to the situation. I tweeted to ask when the remaining playgrounds would be opening so that my daughter could visit regularly again, after having waited patiently for more than four months. This was the response I received:
The tweet is not particularly helpful, but it’s the “well done to your little girl” comment that particularly stings. The level of disdain shown for the mental health of a two-year-old, the readiness to dismiss and belittle something as important as outdoor play and socialising for a toddler, is horrifying.
My family are deeply privileged: we have our own garden with space for my child to run around and play with a variety of outdoor toys, and we have a car to enable us to travel to other locations. When none of Brighton and Hove’s parks opened on 4 July, we were able to travel to Worthing on that first Saturday to take advantage of the fact that Adur & Worthing council were far more proactive in getting outdoor play spaces up and running.
We are incredibly lucky. And yet my daughter (and both of her parents) have found lockdown incredibly challenging.
It must be so much more difficult for families without a garden or access to a car. We’ve all been asked to limit our use of public transport, but if there are no playgrounds available in walking distance, do you load your family on to a bus? What if someone in your household is vulnerable or shielding?
The council says that the playgrounds that are closed are awaiting repair work, but many parents have pointed out that there seems to be a lack of consistency in the approach. Sally told me: “The council said that the ones that are closed have broken equipment. But Hollingdean is open, even though there is fencing around a broken shelter, so it doesn’t make any sense. Then things like nettles and tall grass are annoying because there’s a real high number of ticks around at the moment (so check your kids’ arms, legs and tummies if they’ve been playing in tall grass).”
Several mothers also commented that they had visited reopened playgrounds only to find broken glass amongst the equipment and sandpits.
Another mother of two said: “I think it’s terrible that the parks remain closed in some places and that the ones that are open have been so badly neglected. It’s also a pain that there is little or no information on what is opening so you can’t plan, or you get there and are disappointed. We’ve gone to playgrounds that say they are open online then have a notice on the gate to say they are closed due to silly reasons like ‘not enough sand’.”
Brighton and Hove Council continue to open more playgrounds each week, and you can find the latest list here. This list, however, does not include the seafront play areas at West Pier or Madeira Drive. Despite the government giving the green light for outdoor swimming pools to open last week, water play facilities in Brighton and Hove will remain closed until summer 2021.
So the question remains, why is the mental and physical health of our children so far down Brighton and Hove City Council’s priority list? As adults are enjoying life after lockdown, why are our children still locked out?