Children’s play in London is increasingly stratified by wealth.

Shockingly, around 300,000 children in the capital won’t play out today. Space for play is threatened by encroaching development and the dominance of traffic. Freedom to play is stifled by distorted perceptions of risk and fear. Time for play is eroded by the competing demands of homework, scheduled activities and digital entertainment. Budgets for play workers and play spaces are shrinking. Meanwhile, the need is great: 24 per cent of children in London live in an overcrowded home, 23 per cent are overweight or obese, 10 per cent suffer mental ill health, and one in seven won’t visit a local green space in a given year.

And the root of the problem? Money. First, in this age of austerity, funding for play from local authorities has dwindled since the golden age when the Brown government injected millions into play through council initiatives. Grant funders, such as the Big Lottery and Children in Need, continue to fund play projects, but the competition for funding has never been so intense. Small charities gamble many hours of valuable staff time on making detailed applications, often only to get rejected for an idea that even five years ago would have got the green light.

Borough-level play associations, the grassroots charities that create play opportunities for children who need them, are either shrinking or disappearing altogether. Where once our database listed play officers in most of the capital’s councils, they are now all but gone. London Play itself is struggling to overcome a widening funding gap that has resulted in reduced staff hours: when we were established twenty years ago, we received core funding from London Councils, the body representing the capital’s 33 local authorities. This funding was abruptly cut in 2012. Many charities disappeared; others, like ours, developed a range of funding streams. But survival cannot be guaranteed – and without advocacy for play or resistance against cuts to free provision, there is a danger that childhood in the capital could come to be characterised by screens, obesity and poor mental health. A 21st-century London childhood is in danger of becoming simply a dull grey bridge to adulthood.

With no adult workforce left to create free play opportunities, and an economic and political system that no longer sees a need to provide it, it is the private sector that is increasingly picking up the slack – but at a price.

Which brings us to the second problem with money: play is one of the treats in nature’s bag of tricks designed to keep the human race functioning. Water keeps us hydrated, food gives us the energy to survive, and play makes learning about ourselves and the world a pleasure rather than a chore. It aces formal education, as learning from play evolves according to the child’s own interests, rather than being a one-size-must-fit-all imposition characterised by testing, with its inevitable failures, and an ever-changing, prescriptive curriculum. But, just as water is sold in bottles, and food is sold fast, in cartons (or slow, with Michelin stars attached), play in London is fast becoming a purchasable item.

A recent example of a much-loved London adventure playground serves as a bellwether, indicating the woeful direction in which outdoor play is heading. Wandsworth, a borough that prides itself on having one of the lowest council tax bills in the country, was until recently home to three adventure playgrounds dating back to the 1960s.

At this point, it is worth distinguishing adventure playgrounds from municipal park playgrounds. Adventure playgrounds were established 80 years ago, when the idea of junk playgrounds (as they were known then) was imported from Denmark, sprouting up over here on bombsites and other scraps of land.

The characteristics of adventure playgrounds include:

  • Evolving play structures.
  • Children’s ideas and designs are the dominant creative influence.
  • Playworkers are present to service the children’s play ideas.
  • They are free to use.

Adventure playgrounds offer children an exciting, creative space in which to test themselves, exercise in their own way, extend their social networks, and learn to recognise and manage risk. They are a hothouse for child development, creating confident, ambitious adults at ease with the world and themselves. And that’s no exaggeration: adventure and play are exactly what children need beyond the school gates.

The Wandsworth playgrounds were located in and around social housing, pockets of deprivation within a very wealthy borough. For the children living on those estates, these were precious communal gardens of fun, filled with exciting, evolving structures and, most importantly perhaps, staffed by play professionals who brought the playgrounds to life and created a safe, familiar space for the children to learn and enjoy themselves.

One particular playground, Battersea Park, had stood on its site in the park for 40 years. In 2011, the council decided to put in place a charge to enter the playground and got as far as constructing a tollbooth. When local people reversed this iniquity through a legal challenge, with the support of the then MP for Tooting, Sadiq Khan (who described the proposed charge as a “tax on fun”), the council changed tack and decided the playground and the borough’s two other adventure play sites had had their day. All three were to be closed and their structures destroyed, in an act of vandalism upon children’s culture. It was calculated that it would have cost the price of a loaf of bread each year on council tax bills to fund the retention of the borough’s three adventure playgrounds.

Despite organised opposition, including a council meeting at which tearful children pleaded for a reprieve for their playgrounds, the bulldozers went in during the winter of 2013 and levelled the site. The playworkers were made redundant. A smaller playground was bought from a catalogue and erected. This was not the wonderful labyrinth of wooden walkways, slides and towers the children had had previously, but a rigid tubular metal and moulded plastic ensemble of mediocrity. In terms of play value, this was a poor substitute and, as a consequence, Battersea Park was a less welcoming, joyful place.

The spirit of adventure play was not, however, altogether lost to the park. The council leased the space above the dull new playground to a business that specialises in aerial adventure. In the words of the council spin machine, the new facilities provided “additional adventure and challenge”. The council was less forthcoming about the entry price, which came in at £20 a child per session. A picture soon emerged of local kids making do with run-of-the-mill play equipment while above, peers from affluent families enjoyed themselves on ropes and wires. Wandsworth Council had created a two-tier play park.

Other councils, including Camden, Brent and Lambeth, have also recently closed adventure playgrounds. It seems that we are entering the age of adventure pay-grounds – and it’s not just happening in London.

“Couple turn corner of their Yorkshire farm into massive adventure playground”

That was the headline I read in the Yorkshire Post recently. How great, I thought, a couple giving up a bit of their land for kids to experiment with junk, get messy and build stuff, and all without a profit margin in sight. Well, not quite. Further reading revealed this was a destination playground that charged a steep entry fee – great for those families that could afford to drive there to pay for play. But, with more than a quarter of UK children living in poverty, many can only press their noses against the entrance gate to watch their wealthier counterparts enjoying their Pay-ground.

Play lets children connect their dreams and ideas to reality. But reality has to cooperate. Today’s adult decision makers, those with the agency to channel funding in one direction or another, need to take play seriously and resist policies that deny children one of their essential needs – the surprise and delight of everyday play.

The importance of play is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. But when it comes to the UK, you’d be hard pressed to detect government enthusiasm for actions that support children’s right to play. Without commitment – and, crucially, funding – we will see a generation of future Londoners losing out on the basic requirements of childhood. It’s not too late: but it is urgent. Childhood is a small window in the human lifespan, in which play is the dominant developmental process. That window needs to be opened wide so that every London child has a childhood fit to equip them for the future. Our great city depends upon that.