Why childhood play is vital to help people avoid the dangers and pitfalls of life – Karyn McCluskey

It’s 2022 and I intend keeping to my New Year’s resolution of starting off this column on a hopeful note.

Play can help children learn vital skills like emotional control that will help prevent mistakes in later life (Picture: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)
Play can help children learn vital skills like emotional control that will help prevent mistakes in later life (Picture: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)

I thought it would be a challenge so it was with huge joy that I turned on the radio on Thursday to hear a cacophony of Scottish kids’ voices on Radio 4. It was a half hour of delightful musings on outdoor playgrounds, largely focused on the amazing work of the Baltic Street Adventure Playground in the east end of Glasgow.

For the uninitiated, the playground occupies a relatively small bit of land, but is a veritable cornucopia of childhood delights from campfires to tunnels, crash mats to climbing frames, vegetable gardens and water features.

I visited some time ago, confronted by a plethora of weans, the noise was deafening and the excitement was at fever pitch. To any risk-averse parent, it might appear on the surface to be your worst nightmare.

There is plenty to challenge children at all stages to explore, expand and develop with highly trained play specialists in this child-led environment. It’s free to use and the parents love it.

In areas where outdoor space isn’t easy to access, children still need to play in the fresh air and develop skills alongside others and outdoor adventure play areas provide a crucial service.

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Why am I writing about outdoor adventure play in a column about justice? Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate, said: “Play is a fundamental human right.” There’s a need for both structured and unstructured play to encourage different types of learning, creativity, communication, resilience and team working.

Outdoor play at places like Baltic Street help shape young children by enabling them to explore and expand at their own pace. They learn what it’s like to take risks, develop impulse control, regulate their emotions, experience success and failure and the importance of trying again.

These are the skills that help all of us navigate the world and in so many ways avoid the dangers and pitfalls in life.

The life chances of so many of our young people and children have narrowed and the opportunities to develop have been missed. We are likely to have some big decisions on public funding and small charities and organisations like Baltic Street and other amazing children’s play groups may seem less important when we are faced with the side-effects of this pandemic.

I would argue that they are crucial to the health and well-being of our children and indeed their parents – many of whom will have been confined to flats and areas without outdoor play. Children need the space to grow and get rid of energy.

The world needs creative thinkers to tackle some of the wicked issues that confront us: climate change, conservation, water management, food production, building sustainable environmental homes, tackling new health problems and so much more.

Creative thinking needs to be nurtured and encouraged. Children creating dens and pretend vehicles is not just imaginary child’s play, it’s about investing in our future.

The late, great educationalist Ken Robinson, who made one of the most watched TED talks ever, stressed the point when he said creativity is as important in education as literacy.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland

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